At least once a year during the 1980s Dick Cheney and Donald
Rumsfeld vanished. Cheney was working diligently on Capitol Hill, as a congressman rising through the ranks of the Republican
leadership. Rumsfeld, who had served as Gerald Ford's Secretary of Defense, was a hard-driving business executive in the Chicago
area—where, as the head of G. D. Searle & Co., he dedicated time and energy to the success of such commercial products
as Nutra-Sweet, Equal, and Metamucil. 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.
After leaving their day jobs Cheney and Rumsfeld usually made
their way to Andrews Air Force Base, outside Washington. 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.
Rumsfeld and Cheney were principal actors in one of the most
highly classified programs of the Reagan Administration. Under it U.S. officials furtively carried out detailed planning exercises
for keeping the federal government running during and after a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. 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.
The inspiration for this program came from within the Administration
itself, not from Cheney or Rumsfeld; except for a brief stint Rumsfeld served as Middle East envoy, neither of them ever held
office in the Reagan Administration. Nevertheless, they were leading figures in the program.
A few details about the effort have come to light over the
years, but nothing about the way it worked or the central roles played by Cheney and Rumsfeld. The program is of particular
interest today because it helps to explain the thinking and behavior of the second Bush Administration in the hours, days,
and months after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. 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. All these actions had their roots
in the Reagan Administration's clandestine planning exercises.
The U.S. government considered the possibility of a nuclear
war with the Soviet Union more seriously during the early Reagan years than at any other time since the Cuban Missile Crisis
of 1962. Reagan had 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.
The premise of the secret exercises was that in case of a nuclear
attack on Washington, the United States needed to act swiftly to avoid "decapitation"—that is, a break in civilian leadership.
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 Union.
Under the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations the U.S. government
had built large underground installations at Mount Weather, in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, and near Camp David, along
the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, each of which could serve as a military command post for the President in time of war. Yet
a crucial problem remained: what might happen if the President couldn't make it to one of those bunkers in time.
The Constitution makes the Vice President the successor if
the President dies or is incapacitated, but it establishes no order of succession beyond that. Federal law, most recently
the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, establishes further details. 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. What if a nuclear attack killed both the President and the Vice President,
and maybe the speaker of the House, too? Who would run the country if it was too hard to track down the next living person
in line under the Succession Act? What civilian leader could immediately give U.S. military commanders the orders to respond
to an attack, and how would that leader communicate with the military? In a continuing nuclear exchange, who would have the
authority to reach an agreement with the Soviet leadership to bring the war to an end?
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 take over. This was not some abstract textbook plan; it was practiced
in concrete and elaborate detail. Each team was named for a color—"red" or "blue," for example—and each had an
experienced executive who could operate as a new White House chief of staff. The obvious candidates were people who had served
at high levels in the executive branch, preferably with the national-security apparatus. 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.
As for the Cabinet members on each team, some had little experience
in national security; at various times, for example, participants in the secret exercises included John Block, Reagan's first
Secretary of Agriculture, and Malcolm Baldrige, the Secretary of Commerce. What 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.
One of the questions studied in these exercises was what concrete
steps a team might take to establish its credibility. What might be done to demonstrate to the American public, to U.S. allies,
and to the Soviet leadership that "President" John Block or "President" Malcolm Baldrige was now running the country, and
that he should be treated as the legitimate leader of the United States? One option was to have the new "President" order
an American submarine up from the depths to the surface of the ocean—since the power to surface a submarine would be
a clear sign that he was now in full control of U.S. military forces. 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.
"One of the awkward questions we faced," one participant in
the planning of the program explains, "was whether to reconstitute Congress after a nuclear attack. It was decided that no,
it would be easier to operate without them." 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
Ronald Reagan established the continuity-of-government program
with a secret executive order. According to Robert McFarlane, who served for a time as Reagan's National Security Adviser,
the President himself made the final decision about who would head each of the three teams. Within Reagan's National Security
Council the "action officer" for the secret program was Oliver North, later the central figure in the Iran-contra scandal.
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. In 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.
The exercises were usually scheduled during a congressional
recess, so that Cheney would miss as little work on Capitol Hill as possible. Although Cheney, Rumsfeld, and one other team
leader took part in each exercise, the Cabinet members changed depending on who was available at a particular time. (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 day.")
In addition to the designated White House chief of staff and
his President, each team included representatives from the Departments of State and Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency,
and also from various domestic-policy agencies. 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.
The exercises were designed to be stressful. Participants gathered
in haste, moved and worked in the early-morning hours, lived in Army-base conditions, and dined on early, particularly unappetizing
versions of the military's dry, mass-produced MREs (meals ready to eat). An entire exercise lasted close to two weeks, but
each team took part for only three or four days. One team would leave Washington, run through its drills, and then—as
if it were on the verge of being "nuked"—hand off to the next team.
The plans were carried out with elaborate deception, designed
to prevent Soviet reconnaissance satellites from detecting where in the United States the teams were going. Thus the teams
were sent out in the middle of the night, and changed locations from one exercise to the next. Decoy 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.
The capstone to all these efforts to stay mobile was a special
airplane, the National Emergency Airborne Command Post, a modified Boeing 747 based at Andrews and specially outfitted with
a conference room and advanced communications gear. In it a President could remain in the air and run the country during a
nuclear showdown. In one exercise a team of officials stayed aloft in this plane for three days straight, cruising up and
down the coasts and back and forth across the country, refueling in the air.
When George H.W. Bush was elected President, in 1988, members
of the secret Reagan program rejoiced; having been closely involved with the effort from the start, Bush wouldn't need to
be initiated into its intricacies and probably wouldn't re-evaluate it. In fact, despite dramatically improved relations with
Moscow, Bush did continue the exercises, with some minor modifications. Cheney was appointed Secretary of Defense and dropped
out as a team leader.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet collapse,
the rationale for the exercises changed. A Soviet nuclear attack was obviously no longer plausible—but what if terrorists
carrying nuclear weapons attacked the United States and killed the President and the Vice President? 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.
There things stood until September 11, 2001, when Cheney and
Rumsfeld suddenly began to act out parts of a script they had rehearsed years before. 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, "We did a lot of planning during the Cold War with respect to the possibility of a
nuclear incident." He did not mention the Reagan Administration program or the secret drills in which he and Rumsfeld had
regularly practiced running the country.
Their participation in the extra-constitutional continuity-of-government
exercises, remarkable in its own right, also demonstrates a broad, underlying truth about these two men. For three decades,
from the Ford Administration onward, even when they were out of the executive branch of government, they were never far away.
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.
James Mann, former Washington correspondent for the Los
Angeles Times, is senior writer-in-residence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C. This
article is adapted from his book 'Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet' to be published this month.
Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group
'Armageddon' Plan Was Put Into Action on 9/11, Clarke
By Howard KurtzWashington Post Staff Writer
April 7, 2004; Page A29
An "Armageddon" program designed to ensure that the federal
government would continue to function in the aftermath of a nuclear war was put into place during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist
According to ABC's "Nightline," which plans to report
its findings tonight, every federal agency shifted its control to an alternate headquarters outside Washington. President
Bush's decision to fly to Nebraska that day instead of returning to the White House, which drew some criticism at the time,
was part of that plan, former counterterrorism official Richard A. Clarke said on the program.
book by James Mann details the beginning of a plan for after a nuclear war. (Caroline
"Nightline" expands on a book by James Mann that
detailed the birth of the program, named "Continuity of Government," during the Reagan administration. Under the plan, if
the United States were facing a nuclear attack, three teams of 50 federal officials would be sent from Washington to locations
across the country -- each with a Cabinet member who was prepared to become president.
That is what happened on Sept. 11. "Questions were raised
by talking heads about the president's courage or lack of it because he didn't return directly to Washington," "Nightline"
anchor Ted Koppel said yesterday. "This was absolutely the Armageddon plan put into effect."
Clarke told the program: "Every federal agency was ordered,
on the morning of 9/11, to activate an alternative command post, an alternative headquarters outside of Washington, D.C.,
and to staff it as soon as possible." The former administration official also said he has participated in regular exercises
over the past 20 years in which he has "gone off into caves in mountains in remote locations and spent days on end in miserable
conditions, pretending that the rest of the world had blown up, and going through the questions, going through the drill.
. . . Everyone there play acts that it's really happened. You can't go outside because of the radioactivity. You can't use
the phones because they're not connected to anything."
Mann, whose book "Rise of the Vulcans" was excerpted
last month by Atlantic Monthly, reported that Richard B. Cheney, then a Wyoming congressman, and Donald H. Rumsfeld, then
a drug industry executive, were heavily involved in shaping the program during the 1980s. Both men, who were also former White
House chiefs of staff, participated in the mock disaster exercises, which included convoys of lead-lined trucks carrying sophisticated
communications gear to the secret locations.
During the Sept. 11 attacks, Vice President Cheney and
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld found themselves carrying out a plan they had designed two decades earlier for a very different
kind of threat during the Cold War.
ABC confirmed that Rumsfeld ordered his deputy, Paul
D. Wolfowitz, to move to an undisclosed location outside Washington. Cheney was similarly dispatched, as was House Speaker
J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who under the Constitution is second in line for the presidency. Several Cabinet members, including
Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman and Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, were also removed, said Mann, a former Los Angeles
Koppel said that most members of Congress will be surprised
to learn the plan's details, although selected leaders have been briefed. He said he felt "reassured" by the plan because
"it seems to make common sense. You want the executive branch thinking about how to restore some kind of order in what would
be absolute chaos."
The Washington Post reported in 2002 that
as part of the plan, Bush has dispatched a shadow government of about 100 senior civilian managers to live and work secretly
outside Washington. These officials have been rotating in and out of one of two fortified locations along the East Coast,
according to three officials with firsthand knowledge, the story said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
The Washington Post