No one knows the gov­ern­ment’s plan if there’s a catas­tro­phe.

Jour­nal­ist Gar­rett M. Graff points out the holes in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s dooms­day plans

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @ver­mont­gmg Gar­rett M. Graff, a mag­a­zine writer and his­to­rian, is the au­thor of “Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Gov­ern­ment’s Se­cret Plan to Save It­self — While the Rest of Us Die.”

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.

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.

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, a divi­sion that 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 su­per­czars 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.


Sol­diers march in Py­ongyang, North Korea, last month. Wash­ing­ton has long had plans in place to as­sure the sur­vival of the gov­ern­ment in case a coun­try like North Korea launched a nu­clear at­tack.

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