They are always there, at the president's side or nearby, hiding in plain sight. At any given time, five people hold the title of White...

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WASHINGTON — They are always there, at the president’s side or nearby, hiding in plain sight.

At any given time, five people hold the title of White House military aide, a not particularly revealing description for the men and women who take turns carrying “the football,” the leather briefcase stocked with the classified nuclear-war plan.

It is a plum assignment and a burnout job, in the estimation of those who have done it.

“You’re always kind of on edge,” recalls Robert “Buzz” Patterson, who carried the football for President Clinton as an Air Force major and then lieutenant colonel. “I opened it up constantly just to refresh myself, to always be aware of what was in it, all the potential decisions the president could possibly make.”

Bob Barrett, who carried the football 20 years earlier for President Ford as an Army major, still vividly recalls the job’s benefits and burdens: an intimately close-up view of the presidency and the awesome responsibility of being constantly prepared to assist the president in the event of a nuclear attack.

“You’re wonderfully overwhelmed by it,” said Barrett, who became so close to Ford that he left the military and served on Ford’s staff when the president left office.

Facts and fiction

Former White House military aides say there are plenty of misconceptions about “the football.” Among them:

MYTH: It is handcuffed to the military aide.

FACT: It has a leather cinch strap that can be looped around the wrist.

MYTH: It contains nuclear launch codes.

FACT: It contains codes the president would need to order the Pentagon to launch nuclear weapons.

MYTH: It is always at the president’s side.

FACT: It must always be easily accessible but sometimes is kept nearby, in another room or vehicle, for example.

MYTH: There is only one football.

FACT: There are three. The president has one, the vice president has one and a backup is stored at the White House.

The Associated Press

Forget something?

Barrett also remembers the palpitations he felt during a trip to France when the football inadvertently was left behind at the airport as Barrett departed in a motorcade with Ford. Before long, a U.S. security official passed the suitcase through the window to him from a moving car that caught up to the motorcade.

The football is more properly known as the president’s emergency satchel. It got its nickname because an early version of the nuclear-war plan — the SIOP, or Single Integrated Operational Plan — was code-named “dropkick.”

The small black bag first appeared, without public announcement, during the Kennedy administration in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, when the government saw a need for the president to have nuclear decision-making tools at the ready, even when away from the White House.

Now, long after the end of the Cold War, the lethal luggage still shadows the president. The war plans still are updated regularly. Those who carry the satchel still are trained to help the president prepare for a nuclear attack in mere minutes.

Some question whether that is still necessary; others believe it is needed now more than ever.

Specifics of the football’s contents are classified. It is known to contain a handbook detailing options for unleashing U.S. nuclear weapons — “everything from firing a tactical nuclear weapon, one of them, to full-born Armageddon,” Patterson said.

The short version

The plans were so complex that Jimmy Carter, the only president to really study them closely, ordered that a simplified summary be included, said Bruce Blair, president of the private Center for Defense Information and a former Minuteman launch officer. Blair said one source described the summary to him as “virtually a cartoon version.”

Patterson equates it to “a Denny’s breakfast menu.”

“It’s kind of like picking one out of Column A and two out of Column B,” he said.

There is speculation the briefcase was opened during the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, because it contains information about maintaining the continuity of government and about communication and evacuation procedures during a national emergency.

“There was a continuity-of-government plan that was put into effect, and the documents that lay out what the president should do would be found in the suitcase,” Blair said.

Rules for handling the football are classified and probably have changed over the years. Former White House aides recall strict guidelines for keeping it close to the president.

It should always be on the same elevator with him, for example, and always on the same helicopter. Some aides kept it in hand while jogging with the president. Patterson said he would stow the reinforced briefcase, which he estimated weighs 45 pounds, in one of the secure vehicles that shadowed Clinton on his runs.

“It’s not difficult to carry around,” said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who carried the football for Carter and Reagan as a Marine. “You can put it down, and I did often.”

When the president is at the White House, the football is kept in a secure location. One of the military aides always is able to retrieve it quickly.

There also is a spare football at the White House, and a third satchel that remains close to the vice president.

The bags are manufactured by Utah-based Zero Halliburton.

Football fumbles are rare but do happen.

Clinton once departed a Washington meeting in such haste that he left behind his military aide, who ended up walking 4 ½ blocks to the White House, football in tow.

Former military attaché Peter Metzger recalls when Reagan aide Mike Deaver steered him into a different elevator from the president’s and fooled him into thinking he had missed the motorcade. Metzger said his heart was racing “like a gerbil in a cage” until he realized it was a ruse.

The White House Military Office, which oversees the president’s military aides, would not talk about the classified duties. But the aides themselves — and the football — are there for all to see whenever the president is in public. Frequently, the aides and the satchel are caught in the same camera shots that track the president.

Sometimes an antenna can be seen poking out of the satchel, suggesting communications equipment inside.

Work experience

A retired football is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, accompanied by a deliberately vague explanation of its purposes. Former aides speak in fairly general terms about the nature of the work; some are happy to mention it on their résumés.

Kline parlayed his tenure as a military aide into a pitch for re-election to Congress. Last year he ran a television ad that opened with images of a black briefcase against a dark background.

“In this briefcase lies the fate of the world,” an announcer said. “It contains top-secret codes to launch a nuclear strike. Two presidents — one from each party — trusted a young Marine named John Kline to safeguard it.”

The football’s constant presence near presidents has created plenty of odd juxtapositions; Reagan, for example, standing in Moscow’s Red Square with a military aide and black suitcase at the ready.

One Sunday, as President Bush was attending church near the White House, his football-toting military aide was seated at the rear of St. John’s Church. When the minister directed members of the congregation to greet their neighbors, the aide turned to someone close by and said, “Peace be with you.”