WASHINGTON -- Following the March 30 shooting of President Reagan, the FBI had possession of a secret personal code card the president needed to verify his nuclear strike orders in military emergencies, it was reported Sunday.
The Washington Post reported the FBI's action sparked a dispute between the agency and the president's military aides, which was not settled until Attorney General William French Smith ordered FBI agents to keep the card.
It was not returned for two days and officials say they presume that in the interim a new card was issued with revised codes.
The card is the only device personally carried by the president to authenticate his nuclear commands. It contains a series of coded numbers and words with which he can identify himself to military officials in the Pentagon's war room.
It is crucial to national security, the newspaper said, since officials say they could have only a 'handful of minutes' in which to make nuclear launch decisions.
Ironically, the card was designed for use during emergencies when the president might not have access to secure voice communications - such as the hour he spent in the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital.
The Post said that after Reagan's recovery, the administration conducted a thorough review of how the system worked the day the president was seriously wounded.
Reagan was said to be disturbed by the discovery that the Joint Chiefs of Staff kept a duplicate of the president's card without informing White House officials, the Post said.
White House Communications Director David Gergen disputed the account, saying, 'At no time during the events of March 30 was the national security of the United States impaired.'
The Post reported that in the event of incapacitation of inaccessibility of the president, the nuclear launch authority passes through a chain of command that runs from Vice President George Bush to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to Deputy Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman David Jones