During the Reagan era Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were key players in a clandestine program designed to set aside the legal lines of succession and immediately install a new "President" in the event that a nuclear attack killed the country's leaders.
The program helps
explain the behavior of the Bush Administration on and
Yet for periods of three or four days
at a time no one in Congress knew where Cheney was, nor could
anyone at Searle locate Rumsfeld. Even their wives were in the
dark; they were handed only a mysterious Washington phone number to use
in case of emergency.
From there, in the middle of the night, each man
- joined by a
team of forty to sixty federal officials and one member of Ronald
Reagan's Cabinet - slipped away to some remote location in the United
States, such as a disused military base or an underground bunker. A
convoy of lead-lined trucks carrying sophisticated communications
equipment and other gear would head to each of the locations.
The program called for setting aside
the legal rules for presidential succession in some circumstances, in
favor of a secret procedure for putting in place a new "President" and
his staff. The idea was to concentrate on speed, to preserve "continuity
of government," and to avoid cumbersome procedures; the speaker of the
House, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and the rest of Congress
would play a greatly diminished role.
Vice President Cheney urged President Bush to stay out of Washington for the rest of that day; Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld ordered his deputy Paul Wolfowitz to get out of town; Cheney himself began to move from Washington to a series of "undisclosed locations"; and other federal officials were later sent to work outside the capital, to ensure the continuity of government in case of further attacks.
actions had their roots in the Reagan Administration's
clandestine planning exercises.
spoken in his 1980 campaign about the need for civil-defense programs to
help the United States survive a nuclear exchange, and once in office he
not only moved to boost civil defense but also approved a new
defense-policy document that included plans for waging a protracted
nuclear war against the Soviet Union. The exercises in which Cheney
and Rumsfeld participated were a hidden component of these more
public efforts to prepare for nuclear war.
A core element
of the Reagan Administration's strategy for fighting a
nuclear war would be to decapitate the Soviet leadership by striking at
top political and military officials and their communications lines; the
Administration wanted to make sure that the Soviets couldn't do to
America what U.S. nuclear strategists were planning to do to the Soviet
If the Vice President dies or cannot serve, then the speaker of the House of Representatives becomes President.
After him in the line of succession come the president pro tempore of the Senate (typically the longest-serving member of the majority party) and then the members of the Cabinet, in the order in which their posts were created - starting with the Secretary of State and moving to the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense, and so on.
The Reagan Administration, however, worried that this procedure might not meet the split-second needs of an all-out war with the Soviet Union.
The outline of the plan was simple. Once the United States was (or believed itself about to be) under nuclear attack, three teams would be sent from Washington to three different locations around the United States.
Each team would be prepared to assume leadership of the country,
and would include a Cabinet member who was prepared to become President.
If the Soviet Union were somehow to locate one of the teams and hit it
with a nuclear weapon, the second team or, if necessary, the third could
Cheney and Rumsfeld had each served as
White House chief of staff in the Ford Administration. Other team
leaders over the years included James Woolsey, later the director of the
CIA, and Kenneth Duberstein, who served for a time as Reagan's actual
White House chief of staff.
counted was not experience in foreign policy but, rather, that the
Cabinet member was available. It seems fair to conclude that some of
these "Presidents" would have been mere figureheads for a more
experienced chief of staff, such as Cheney or Rumsfeld. Still, the
Cabinet members were the ones who would issue orders, or in whose name
the orders would be issued.
This standard - control of the military - is one of the tests the U.S. government uses in deciding whether to deal with a foreign leader after a coup d'état.
For one thing, it was felt that reconvening Congress, and replacing members who had been killed, would take too long.
Moreover, if Congress did reconvene, it might elect a new speaker of the House, whose claim to the presidency might have greater legitimacy than that of a Secretary of Agriculture or Commerce who had been set up as President under Reagan's secret program.
The election of a new House speaker would not only take time but also create the potential for confusion. The Reagan Administration's primary goal was to set up a chain of command that could respond to the urgent minute-by-minute demands of a nuclear war, when there might be no time to swear in a new President under the regular process of succession, and when a new President would not have the time to appoint a new staff.
The Administration, however, chose to
establish this process without going to Congress for the legislation
that would have given it constitutional legitimacy.
Vice President George H.W. Bush was given the authority to supervise some of these efforts, which were run by a new government agency with a bland name: the National Program Office. It had its own building in the Washington area, run by a two-star general, and a secret budget adding up to hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Much of this money was spent on advanced communications equipment that would enable the teams to have secure conversations with U.S. military commanders.
fact, the few details that have previously come to light about the
secret program, primarily from a 1991 CNN investigative report, stemmed
from allegations of waste and abuses in awarding contracts to private
companies, and claims that this equipment malfunctioned.
(Once, Attorney General Ed Meese participated in an
exercise that departed from Andrews in the pre-dawn hours of June 18,
1986 - the day after Chief Justice Warren Burger resigned. One official
remembers looking at Meese and thinking, "First a Supreme Court
resignation, and now America's in a nuclear war. You're having a bad
The idea was to practice running the
entire federal government with a skeletal crew during a nuclear war. At
one point there was talk of bringing in the governors of Virginia and
Maryland and the mayor of the District of Columbia, but the idea was
discarded because they didn't have the necessary security clearance.
convoys were sometimes dispatched along with the genuine convoys
carrying the communications gear. The underlying logic was that the
Soviets could not possibly target all the makeshift locations around the
United States where the Reagan teams might operate.
Finally, during the early Clinton years, it was decided that
this scenario was farfetched and outdated, a mere legacy of the Cold
War. It seemed that no enemy in the world was still capable of
decapitating America's leadership, and the program was abandoned.
Operating from the underground shelter beneath the White House, called the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, Cheney told Bush to delay a planned flight back from Florida to Washington. At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld instructed a reluctant Wolfowitz to get out of town to the safety of one of the underground bunkers, which had been built to survive nuclear attack.
Cheney also ordered House Speaker Dennis Hastert, other congressional leaders, and several Cabinet members (including Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Interior Secretary Gale Norton) evacuated to one of these secure facilities away from the capital.
Explaining these actions a few days later, Cheney vaguely told NBC's Tim Russert,
He did not mention
the Reagan Administration program or the secret drills in which he and
Rumsfeld had regularly practiced running the country.
They stayed in touch with defense, military, and intelligence officials, who regularly called upon them.
They were, in a sense, a part of the permanent hidden national-security apparatus of the United States - inhabitants of a world in which Presidents come and go, but America keeps on fighting.