"The codes were actually missing for months. This is a big deal," says ex-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton. "We dodged a silver bullet." In his book 'Without Hesitation,' he writes, "Even though movies may show the President wearing these codes around his neck, it's pretty standard that they are safeguarded by one of his aides, but that aide sticks with him like glue."
He adds that President Clinton "assumed, I'm sure, that the aide had them like he was supposed to." What apparently was missing was a card with code numbers on it that allows the President to access a briefcase -- called the "football" and kept by an aide always near the President -- containing instructions for launching a nuclear attack, CNN reported.
Once a month, Defence Department officials conduct an in-person verification to make sure the President has the right codes. At least twice in a row, Shelton writes, a White House aide told the Pentagon checker that the President was in a meeting but gave a verbal assurance that the codes were with him.
Then one month around the year 2000, according to Shelton, when the time came to replace the codes with a new set, "the President's aide said neither he nor the President had the codes -- they had completely disappeared."
Shelton writes that all this happened very likely without Clinton's knowledge. There was no immediate response from Clinton, who served as President from 1993 to 2001, on the issue, CNN said.
Fran Townsend, who served as homeland security adviser to President George W Bush said, "I can't imagine a more serious breach, if something like that were ever to be lost or be compromised.
"That's the command and control capability of the President to launch a nuclear attack."
But if an unauthorised person found or obtained the codes, she said, it is very unlikely that they could execute a launch, because they are only one part of the launch protocol. Another part of that protocol is the "football," containing the actual launch instructions.
Shelton says the President was given new codes within minutes when the previous codes could not be found, and the procedures have since been changed.