In response to Ukraine’s valiant resistance, Western intervention, and expansion of NATO, Putin has repeatedly threatened nuclear escalation. His Army has fired upon and taken over Zaporizhzhia—the largest nuclear facility in Europe— restored its power, and abandoned it, leaking radiation. The Russian army has also taken over Chernobyl, which has revved up fears of nuclear accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl itself.
Closer to home, after Trump lost his re-election bid, even his closest advisors feared he might launch an unprovoked nuclear attack against an unidentified target to justify declaring Martial Law and upending the peaceful transfer of power. Then on January 6th, 2021, as Vice President Pence attempted to oversee the counting of electoral votes amid chants outside of “Hang Mike Pence,” a Secret Service agent accompanying him clung to the nuclear football – an emergency briefcase for use by the President to launch a nuclear attack while away from fixed command centers. Moreover, during this transitional period, outgoing President Trump was evidently shipping top secret nuclear documents to Mar-a-Lago.
Vitriolic muscle-flexing and threatening to use nuclear weapons has been on display intermittently over the years to intimidate and demand submission. Throughout its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons to push back against Western support of Ukraine. But is there any realistic prospect of a nuclear accident or of the codes falling into the wrong hands? Yes. I speak from experience.
During the presidency of peanut farmer Jimmy Carter, my wife Ginger and I lived in an apartment in the Kalorama area of Northwest DC. A block away, at the corner of Kalorama and Connecticut, the closely-guarded Chancery of the People’s Republic of China (an Embassy starting in 1979) occupied two historic apartment buildings joined by an inner space. The Chancery overlooked the Rock Creek gorge from the southwest terminus of Connecticut Avenue Bridge, the world’s largest unreinforced concrete structure. Completed in 1907, the majestically arched, classic revival bridge was distinguished by two cast concrete lion “guards” at either end; two with eyes closed, apparently sleeping, and two with heads tilted upwards, and mouths slightly open. Twenty-four bronze lamp posts, spaced equidistant along both sides of the bridge, provided discernable illumination after dark.
Almost daily, Ginger and I cross the bridge on foot to enjoy the expansive view of the Rock Creek gorge below and the surrounding forested hills and trails. We often jog across to challenge the 15-station parcourse at its northwest base. Sometimes I dash across for solo jungle runs through the National Zoo to its north. One day, coming home from a jungle run, as I walk down our gingko-shaded street, I see a tan leather briefcase smack in the middle of our intersection, sun dazzled. I look around to see if somebody might be coming back, but see no one. I snatch it, tote it up two flights to our apartment, and lay it down on our vintage 1930’s porcelain kitchen table.
“Look what the cat dragged in!” I brag, still out of breath.
“Don’t open it. You don’t know what’s in there,” Ginger shouts, as I open it in search of ID. I assume its owner is as worried as I’d be in his shoes. I want to return it pronto. But once I open it, my heart starts racing like a trapped deer’s.
“Those look like maps of where to find the secret treasure in King Tut’s tomb,” Ginger says..
In fact, the briefcase contains detailed diagrams of the innards of the Los Alamos nuclear weapons complex. Each is stamped in big, red, block letters TOP SECRET. An itinerary details an imminent visit to Los Alamos by a newly-elected U.S. Senator from Maine and his entourage.
I keep searching and find ID for the briefcase’s owner, a legislative aide for said U.S. Senator. I call the home number on the ID. When I hear a man answer, I ask point blank, “Do you know where your briefcase is?”
“In the study, on my desk,” he replies without flinching.
I say, “Why don’t you go check.”
Moments later he returns to the phone, breathless. “Who is this? And what have you done with my briefcase.”
“I have it here,” I say. “I found it in the middle of the intersection of 20th and Kalorama. I want to return it.”
Relieved, he says, “We just had a baby. I was so focused on getting the baby into the car, I guess I forgot the briefcase. I didn’t even realize.”
He guesses? Didn’t even realize? What was he thinking, bringing home highly-classified documents that in the wrong hands could trash national security?
I give my address to the careless carrier of nuclear secrets. We agree on a time. I tell him, I’ll hang out in the lobby and be on the lookout.
“Since he works for a Senator from Maine,” Ginger says, “maybe he’ll give us a couple of lobsters as a reward.”
“Don’t bet on it.”
When someone lost and nervous-looking, wearing a trench coat reminiscent of Deep Throat, shows up outside the lobby’s glass door, I open it, step out, and ask him to identify himself. After he says the correct name, I hold out the briefcase. Without establishing eye contact, he snatches away the briefcase, mumbles “thanks,” pivots, makes tracks, and doesn’t look back.
“No lobsters,” I tell Ginger. “I wouldn’t’ve trusted them anyway. You think I should’ve called Ben Bradlee?”
“No,” Ginger says. “You should’ve walked out to the middle of Connecticut Avenue Bridge and dropped it into Rock Creek.”
Now, my friends assure me, “You did the right thing. If nothing else, you saved his career.”
One jokes, “Nowadays, you’d be made to disappear.”
“But at whose hand?” I ask.
“Take your pick,” he says. “The CIA, to make sure nobody finds out what you found. Or the KGB: once they’ve relieved you of it, they’d surely feed you to the fishies.”
“Good thing cell phones didn’t exist,” Ginger adds, “because I’m sure you would’ve copied every page.”
Given how often the spiriting of highly sensitive and even classified data by government officials has been front page news, the events I described should come as no surprise. But I’ll tell you this, if someone throws me the nuclear football, I’m faking right and running left.