The quarterback behind the ‘nuclear football’

Former senior military aide who oversaw nuclear launch codes discusses White House experiences with LB Republican group

Photos by Sebastian Echeverry | Signal Tribune
Lt. Col. Robert Patterson presenting his first-hand account of President Bill Clinton’s administration during an event hosted by the Long Beach Republican Women Federated (LBRWF) on Jan. 13.

When a phone call from the White House informed Lt. Col. Robert Patterson that he had obtained a job in a highly crucial and classified position alongside the president, he wanted to turn it down.

“I called my then girlfriend, now wife, and said, ‘I think I’m going to say no,’” Patterson said. “She said, ‘you can’t say ‘no’ to the White House.’ So, I took the job. And she was right, well, she was always right.”

During a Long Beach Republican Women Federated (LBRWF) meeting on Jan. 13, Patterson recalled his experiences when he served as President Bill Clinton’s senior military aide from 1996 to 1998.

During those two years of standing by Clinton’s side, Patterson was appointed to oversee the Presidential Emergency Satchel, also known as the nuclear football– a large black bag, which contained secret codes that would be used to launch nuclear missiles if the president needed to do so.

For 20 years, Patterson served as an active-duty pilot in the United States Air Force. His experience as a high-ranking officer led White House officials to interview him for the senior military aide position.

Patterson said he had previously heard of what the nuclear football was and who oversaw it, but it wasn’t until taking part in several highly classified meetings that he was fully aware of the magnitude of such a position and what it entailed.

Every president, since George Washington, had a military aide who would give advice and direction in terms of military intelligence. In the 1950s, the advent of nuclear weapons added a new responsibility to military aides.

The equipment needed to message the Pentagon, concerning the nation’s nuclear firepower, always has to be within reach of the president. During Clinton’s presidency, this undertaking was now under Patterson’s watch.

Two months after being notified that he got the job, Patterson moved into the White House, which became his new home and office.

“The first night when I slept in the White House, I was really overwhelmed with the responsibility,” he told the Signal Tribune during an interview after his presentation. “Here was the American nuclear power, and if we used it, hundreds of thousands of people would die. If we messed it up, it would have been even worse.”

As Patterson made his transition from military officer to White House senior staff member, he got a closer look at how politics worked. He said he was “a blank slate” in regard to politics before moving to the White House.
The former Air Force officer said that it is against military law to use rank or status to endorse a specific political party. However, his close experiences with Clinton led him to believe that the 42nd president was not fit for office.

“It didn’t take me long to understand that the person who had been elected in ’93, and reelected in ’96, was not qualified or competent in terms of being our commander-in-chief,” Patterson said, recalling a specific moment, six weeks into his job as the senior military aide.

During a Long Beach Republican Women Federated (LBRWF) meeting on Jan. 13, Lt. Col. Robert Patterson (left) shared his experiences as President Bill Clinton’s senior military aide with local residents. Pictured here, Patterson is signing his book, Dereliction of Duty, for a meeting attendee. Patterson retired from the military in 2001 and pursued his career as a political speaker and writer.

In 1996, Patterson accompanied Clinton to the President’s Cup golf tournament in Gainesville, Virginia. Simultaneously, on the other side of the globe, Saddam Hussein was preparing to launch an attack on Kurdish positions in northern Iraq, according to Patterson.

“We, in the U.S., had promised our support,” he said. “We had Air Force and Navy fighter jets and bombers in positions to repeal Republican Guards and save these people’s lives.”

Sandy Berger, the national security adviser at the time, called Patterson three times and told him that he needed to get clearance from Clinton to launch an attack on Hussein’s forces.

“On three occasions, President Clinton said, ‘I’m too busy watching golf, call back later,’” Patterson said.
“Tens of thousands” of Kurds were killed that day because the president did not take the call, the former Air Force officer said.

Hussein’s attack on Kurdish positions in a northern Iraq occurred in late August 1996. Despite not reacting to the specific attack that Patterson spoke about, U.S. forces launched a retaliatory missile attack against Iraqi anti-air defenses as part of Operation Desert Strike in early September, according to globalsecurity.org.

The event in Virginia led Patterson to develop doubts about the Clinton presidency. However, he spoke about another alleged moment that occurred in the White House that he said solidified his disapproval of the president.

Patterson said that, on the same morning the Monica Lewinsky sex affair made major headlines in the press, he had a scheduled early-morning meeting to talk to the president about the nuclear codes and answer any questions that he may have had.

Patterson said that, when he approached the president– who was sitting behind his desk– about the nuclear codes, Clinton said that he did not have them with him. He added that they were most likely in the residential area of the White House.

After searching in the rooms where Clinton said he had left them, Patterson told him that the codes were nowhere to be found, according to Patterson.

“I said, ‘Sir, we can’t find them. Do you have any idea when you had last seen them?’” Patterson said. “He said, ‘no, not really.’”

The president had not seen the nuclear launch codes “in months,” according to Patterson, who then called the Pentagon and told them that the codes were missing.

Patterson said that no one had ever lost the codes before but that President Jimmy Carter had accidentally left the codes in the pocket of his suit when it was sent to the cleaners, and President Ronald Regan was separated from them when he was shot during an assassination attempt.

The next day, following the early meeting with Clinton, Patterson was given a new set of nuclear codes. He said the event that unfolded in the Oval Office created the perspective that President Clinton was not fit for the presidency.

Following his time at the White House, Patterson retired from the military in 2001 and wrote Dereliction of Duty, a first-hand account of the Clinton presidency that was on the New York Times Bestseller list. In his book, Patterson goes into further details about his time as the senior military aide.

Patterson moved on to pursue a career as a political writer and has written other books during his retirement.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign office in California contacted him and asked if he would speak at rallies and endorse the candidate. He agreed to endorse Trump, quit flying full-time for Delta Air Lines and spoke to Republican groups about his experiences in the White House.

Patterson said that he saw President Clinton as a “pretty decent domestic president.” He said his major flaw was in how he interacted with the military.

Patterson told the Signal Tribune that President Trump handles the military in better ways when compared to Clinton and President Barack Obama.

During a Long Beach Republican Women Federated (LBRWF) meeting on Jan. 13, Lt. Col. Robert Patterson recalls the time he served as President Bill Clinton’s senior military aide from 1996 to 1998. He was in charge of the “nuclear football”– a large black bag that accompanies the president, which contains secret codes that are used to launch the nation’s nuclear missiles.

“I’m watching the way he handles the military and, so far, I’m very thrilled that he’s our commander-in-chief,” Patterson said. “I think that eight years with Obama kind of pushed us back, in terms of national security and military, and I think Trump is going to recapture that.”

Patterson added that Trump is handling the escalating threat from North Korea correctly. He said that Kim Jong-Un’s capability to develop nuclear weapons came as a result of policies signed during Clinton’s administration.

He referred to the Agreed Framework agreement– signed by the U.S. and North Korea in 1994– which called upon Pyongyang to freeze operation and construction of nuclear reactors suspected of being part of a covert nuclear weapons program in exchange for two proliferation-resistant nuclear power reactors, according to armscontrol.org– a national nonpartisan membership organization that promotes support for effective arms-control policies. The website claims that experts believe the agreement stopped North Korea from having “hundreds of nuclear weapons at this point.”

According to 2001-2009.state.gov, the agreement also stated that a U.S.-led consortium would build two light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea– reactors that use ordinary water as a cooling medium, according to nuclear-power.net.

However, the reactors were never built, and the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) fell behind because it was poorly funded, according to a 1998 hearing by the Senate subcommittee on east Asian and Pacific affairs of the Committee on Foreign Relations (gpo.gov). Craig Thomas, chairman of the subcommittee at the time, claimed that the Clinton administration had either “low-balled” KEDO’s costs or that other supporting nations had not “made good on their promises” financially.

The agreement fell apart in 2002 when North Korea pulled out, according to armscontrol.org.

“The appeasement approach to North Korea has not worked,” Patterson said. “The fact that Trump is calling [Kim Jong-Un] out, and is positioning Naval assets off the coast, is the only way that you can deal with someone like this.”

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