The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What would the government do after a WMD attack? We have no idea.

The plans are elaborate — and totally secret. It's time to tell the public about them.

The post-apocalyptic planning is substantial; the planners are unaccountable. (DSWA-DASIAC, REUTERS)

If North Korea launches a nuclear-armed ballistic missile, one of the only things we know for sure about what will happen next is that the news will race around the world on classified networks using the designation reserved for the Pentagon’s highest-level alert, an “OPREP-3 PINNACLE NUCFLASH,” which signals a possible imminent nuclear war. After that, though, we know surprisingly little about what might unfold — particularly if a surprise attack managed to cripple Washington. (As Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) pointed out last month, North Koreans wouldn’t necessarily have to fire an intercontinental missile; they could always smuggle a nuke into the country, even if they probably wouldn’t hide it in a bale of marijuana, as he proposed.)

For three generations, government officials have carefully planned, war-gamed and thought through exactly what nuclear war would entail, and how to protect and rebuild the country in the event of an attack on the capital or elsewhere. They’ve considered which critical documents should be saved before others (the Declaration of Independence first, the Constitution second) and precisely who and how many officials from each agency and department should be evacuated — literally creating “A” teams, “B” teams and “C” teams who would be plucked by helicopters from dozens of designated landing zones around Washington, such as the Pentagon and the athletic fields of American University, and whisked to mountain bunkers near the capital.

Over the years, the government has secretly invested billions of dollars in a complicated set of plans that came to be known as “continuity of government” (COG) and “continuity of operations” (COOP) — an entire apparatus, almost completely unknown to the general public, for when the Doomsday Clock hits midnight. In Philadelphia, a specially trained team of park rangers even stood ready during the Cold War to evacuate the Liberty Bell into the mountains of Appalachia if the Soviets attacked. We know many of these details thanks to records declassified in recent years as the Cold War abated.

But new versions of these plans exist, and we know precious little about them. What we do know raises troubling questions about who would command the country in a moment of crisis — questions that, left unanswered, threaten to undermine the carefully laid-out plans. The government has long held that even hinting at the plans could aid the enemy, but in a democratic society, we should have a much better understanding of what our leaders intend to do in our name after an attack by weapons of mass destruction. The legitimacy of our republican system is based on the consent of the governed — and now, before a catastrophe ever happens, is precisely when we should debate what Armageddon’s aftermath might look like.

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Today, the most important category of these plans, known as “Enduring Constitutional Government,” remains entirely classified, hidden even from members of Congress. The White House will describe it only as “a cooperative effort among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, coordinated by the President, to preserve the capability to execute constitutional responsibilities in a catastrophic emergency.” It’s clear from a close reading of available executive orders, as well as interviews I’ve conducted and vague public hints from officials since the 1990s, that ECG policies don’t necessarily preserve peacetime constitutional precedents, instead focusing on establishing a streamlined process to ensure that the nation’s constitutional traditions could be reestablished over time. In other words, ECG programs are aimed at preserving the spirit of the Constitution, not the letter of it. That might mean vast expansions of executive power, limits on traditional civil liberties such as habeas corpus and even the declaration of some type of martial law, as two former senior officials hinted in interviews after 9/11.

Moreover, the plans probably vest an incredible amount of authority in a small group of people whose identities will be unveiled to the nation only after the worst has happened. We do know at least one of these figures, though: The man who updated these plans after Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush’s deputy White House chief of staff, Joe Hagin, today holds the same role in the Trump White House.

Doomsday plans have always assumed that the president will die in the opening moments of an attack, so during the Reagan years, a secret program called the Presidential Successor Support System was designed to whisk former high-level officials, such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, from their private lives and install them as White House chiefs-of-staff-in-waiting. According to my research and interviews, the goal of the program was to ensure that a neophyte presidential successor — say, the agriculture secretary — would have an experienced staff already in place when he or she arrived at the bunker. Do such programs exist today? Might we, after a NUCFLASH alert, find someone like former chiefs of staff Andy Card or Denis McDonough waiting in a bunker for President Betsy DeVos or President Ben Carson?

There are a troubling number of scenarios in which we wouldn’t know who the rightful president would be if Washington was attacked. The 25th Amendment, which deals with presidential succession — itself a product of the atomic age and the need to clarify command over the country’s nuclear arsenal — leaves unanswered some of the biggest questions. For one thing, there’s no process to deal with an incapacitated vice president, an oversight that led Vice President Cheney, with his long history of heart problems, to write a secret resignation letter that he gave to his staff in case a medical issue left him unable to function. The 25th Amendment also fails to clarify the very basic question of whether the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tem are constitutionally allowed to step into the presidency — a position James Madison argued against.

Whom would the Pentagon listen to in the event of conflicting orders from the speaker of the House and the secretary of state? (Recall Secretary of State Al Haig’s pronouncement after President Ronald Reagan was shot that “I’m in control here at the White House.” Now imagine it in a higher-stakes crisis.) This confusion is precisely why we need a more public accounting of the nation’s plans for Doomsday — particularly if, as expected, the government would seek to curtail our civil liberties in the wake of an attack.

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While there are legitimate reasons for secrecy around some particulars of the government’s continuity efforts — tactical details such as precisely how and where certain officials might evacuate, or the communications capabilities of certain facilities or vehicles — there shouldn’t be the same opacity around the broader strategic goals. In fact, the secretive nature of many of these procedures threatens to undermine their use in an emergency. Understanding who possesses what rightful authority in our government is one of the simplest goals of a democratic society. If, after a disaster, several previously anonymous Cabinet undersecretaries each announce that he or she is the nation’s leader, how are we as citizens to understand who might be telling the truth?

These are not questions that should be hashed out when the nation is in extremis. They should be part of our national discussion now — and our elected leaders should explain their thinking and procedures in peacetime, when sober minds can afford to debate the finer points of constitutional law. After all, we can’t expect to rely on the wisdom of the Supreme Court, which, if a chunk of its members are killed or incapacitated, has no ability to reconstitute itself outside the obviously slow normal Senate confirmation process. The outlines of these succession plans should be publicly debated and agreed upon by the different branches of government so that, after an attack, when the U.S. attorney for northern Illinois or the ambassador to the United Nations — two of the highest-ranking figures in Cabinet succession lines who normally live and work outside the capital — announces that he or she is in charge, we believe them.

Congress, too, has failed for decades to assure its own continuity and succession planning. Proposed legislation failed again and again in the years after 9/11, leaving it likely impotent for months in the face of a surprise attack, since it requires a quorum of its members to operate. One informed theory, hinted at by former officials in interviews, holds that the ECG procedures include a specific, defined role for a small, pre-selected set of congressional leaders — perhaps as small as the four party leaders of the two chambers — who would serve as a “rump” or “skeleton” Congress until a full legislature could be established months later. Such a body would be similar to the congressional “Gang of Eight,” who are regularly informed by the president about covert military and intelligence actions around the world. This theory is backed up by the one continuity area Congress did tackle successfully after 9/11: beginning to appoint its own “designated survivor.” Whereas for decades, one member of the Cabinet has skipped major gatherings such as the State of the Union to ensure a presidential successor if a disaster struck, in the weeks following 9/11, Congress decided to follow suit.

What role precisely would that single surviving congressional leader have in the wake of a disaster? That’s classified — hidden away inside sealed envelopes watched over by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Continuity Programs, which runs the government’s aftermath planning. But it’s something we should know if we’re expected to trust the men and women who might lead us after a major attack.

Then, of course, there’s the problem of what happens to the rest of us. As it turns out, if you examine the historical record of the Cold War, those well-stocked Doomsday preppers on TV have it right: If Armageddon comes, ordinary citizens across the country will be almost entirely on our own — the government has figured out that while it can probably save itself, the rest of us will be left to survive for two or three months (or longer) before it would seek to reestablish federal control over the nation and restore basic services. While civilian protection programs were briefly restarted during the Reagan administration, under a secret effort known as Project 908, the truth is that not since the Cuban missile crisis has the federal government made any widespread effort to ensure that the residents of likely target areas would receive any immediate shelter or post-attack relief. FEMA has relief supplies in stockpiles outside major cities, but there’s little known about how large-scale rebuilding efforts would be administered.

Recently declassified records tell us that Dwight Eisenhower arranged for a set of leading businessmen to be appointed super-czars after an attack; they would have nationalized almost every industry and controlled everything from wages to industries to prices. Has President Trump handpicked private citizens or corporate chief executives, such as GE’s Jeff Immelt or GM’s Mary Barra, who would rebuild our country if North Korea nuked Washington? Are there White House officials or journalists in newsrooms today who might lead wartime censorship efforts, similar to the ones stipulated during the Cold War, in the event that tensions with Russia escalate? Might Steve Bannon help with those efforts, as one of the Watergate burglars, James W. McCord Jr., would have during the Nixon years? We just don’t know.

Through the depths of the Cold War, the attorney general was trailed by an aide carrying an emergency briefcase, like the president’s nuclear “football,” that contained executive orders suspending civil liberties and declaring a variation of martial law. It’s time for members of Congress to hold hearings and tell the public whether there is similar pre-written emergency legislation, akin to the Doomsday Patriot Act, somewhere close to Jeff Sessions today. Otherwise, we’ll know the answers only if the worst happens — and by then, it’ll be too late to object.