WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - It is a simple transfer of immense power.
On Jan. 20, an unobtrusive military officer carrying a small leather-bound metal briefcase will follow President George W. Bush up to Capitol Hill. After the inauguration ceremony, he will accompany President Barack Obama back to the White House.
Inside the attach?, known as "the football," are the codes to identify and authenticate a presidential order that could launch nuclear weapons and ignite a global holocaust.
Routine to us, perhaps astonishing to much of the world, this peaceful passing of "the football" will propel Obama into a maelstrom. What awaits the new commander in chief is the weighty responsibility of defending the United States - and a nasty brew of nuclear weapons problems that range from the threat of terrorist attacks to potential new regional and superpower arms races. Iran and North Korea are rushing headlong toward building nuclear arsenals. And the main arms reduction treaty with Russia expires next year.
Those known challenges arise from an unruly world thrown into deeper turmoil by the global financial crisis, a world in which nuclear technology spreads like wildfire and almost 10,000 nuclear weapons could be on alert at any given time.
The risk of nuclear war will grow during the next 20 years, U.S. intelligence officers concluded last week. Surprise, in this realm, is almost a given.
"It is immensely sobering when you are actually confronted with all the responsibility related to nuclear weapons," said Matthew Bunn, a former White House nuclear weapons adviser now at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
That will become clear with Obama's first peek inside the ever-present briefcase. The secure phone nestled inside will connect him to the nuclear command centers at the Pentagon, Colorado Springs and "Site R," the bunkered emergency command center just over the Maryland border near Blue Ridge Summit, Pa. Through them, the president can reach the 1,300 U.S. strategic nuclear weapons always on alert.
Inside the case he will also find a notebook listing various attack options - from a single shot to all-out war - from which the president may choose and order.
Previous presidents have found all this hard to absorb.
"The most sober and startling I ever heard," Ronald Reagan said after his first briefing on the nuclear options - so disturbing that it helped launch him on a quest to abolish nuclear weapons altogether.
Obama has outlined an ambitious plan of tackling many of these issues.
"Here's what I will say as president: America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons," he said in an Oct. 2, 2007, speech in Chicago. While working toward that long-range goal, he said the United States "will not pursue unilateral disarmament. As long as nuclear weapons exist, we'll retain a strong nuclear deterrent."
But he vowed to reach an agreement with Russia "to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert" and to negotiate significant reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles.
He intends to pursue tough negotiations with Iran and North Korea to halt their nuclear weapons programs.
And he has promised to lock down all nuclear material around the world at vulnerable sites "within four years."
Events may not wait.
A new long-range forecast from America's top spy agencies said the possibility of a new nuclear arms race in the Middle East, ignited by Iran's race to build a nuclear weapons arsenal, promises new instabilities "potentially more dangerous than the Cold War" between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Weak Middle East regimes might be more tempted to actually use the weapons during a crisis in a region already prone to convulsive violence, said the report, Global Trends 2025, released by National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell.
The six Persian Gulf states, within easy missile range of Iran, have said they are pursuing "peaceful" nuclear energy programs. They are among 50 nations interested in building new nuclear facilities.
According to a report last month by the International Atomic Energy Agency, 439 nuclear power reactors currently are operating in 30 countries, with 36 plants under construction.
The increased nuclear activity "naturally increases the risk that nuclear material could be diverted to make nuclear weapons," IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei told the United Nations. This year alone, the IAEA has investigated 250 incidents involving the loss or theft of nuclear or radioactive material. Much of it is never recovered, he said.
Senior U.S. intelligence officers, asked to weigh the risks that will dominate the next 15 years, noted that the spread of nuclear material and weapons technology is accelerating. They said a number of weak regimes, like North Korea, might acquire and then lose control of nuclear weapons. They listed new ways that might tempt actual use of nuclear weapons, for example in low-yield blasts or high-altitude detonations to cripple enemy communications.
Given these trends, they said in the recent report, the risk of nuclear war in the near future, "although remaining low, is likely to be greater than it is today."
Despite the threat of new nuclear powers, Moscow might quickly become a key focus of the Obama administration.
Under Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who has vowed to "significantly increase" Russia's aircraft, missile and submarine nuclear weapons launchers, Russia is building two new classes of intercontinental ballistic missiles and deploying a new class of ballistic missile submarines.
Senior Russian officials, including Putin, have threatened to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia's interests, and have aggressively deployed Russian bombers and warships for the first time in years.
Currently, the overall size of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals is limited by the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. But the treaty expires in December 2009. With it will expire any of the extensive verification measures, including inspections at each other's missile plants, that have ensured confidence on both sides.
That deadline will create pressure on Obama to begin negotiations immediately, arms control experts said, even if the only agreement is to extend the current treaty for an additional year. An agreement on deeper reductions would take more time. A newer treaty signed in 2002, the Strategic Offense Reduction Treaty, calls for further cuts by 2012 but contains no verification measures.
On another front, Obama could help slow the spread of nuclear weapons by early on reiterating his intent to reduce global stockpiles, endorsing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and confirming his intention to seek an eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. Such moves have been urged by former Republican secretaries of state Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz, among others.
"A strong statement in his inaugural address, for example, would send the right signal to the world and would create space for the United States and like-minded countries to pursue nonproliferation," said Deepti Choubey, an arms control specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But Obama should be wary of promising too much.
"Our capacity to engage the rest of the world has taken a huge hit over the past eight years," she said.
"I would temper expectations. We shouldn't dig ourselves further into the hole."
Even if all the U.S. nuclear initiatives work out as promised, Americans will remain vulnerable at home to a nuclear-related catastrophe, whether in the form of a "dirty bomb" that spreads radioactivity or a smuggled nuclear device.
"No matter what is done to prevent nuclear terrorism, it is essential that the United States get better prepared should such a catastrophe nevertheless occur," warns a new report by Harvard's Belfer Center.
In the "ghastly aftermath" of a nuclear detonation, the report said, the government needs - and does not currently have - an ability to rapidly assess people in greatest danger, to communicate with them to advise on what to do, and to care for the injured and homeless. And there must be a comprehensive plan, the report said, to keep the government and the economy running while authorities begin to sort out a response.