Continuity of Government Planning, War and American Society

by Peter Dale Scott

In July 1987, during the Iran-Contra Hearings grilling of Oliver North, the American public got a glimpse of “highly sensitive” emergency planning North had been involved in. Ostensibly North had been handling plans for an emergency response to a nuclear attack (a legitimate concern). But press accounts alleged that the planning was for a more generalized suspension of the constitution at the president’s determination.

As part of its routine Iran-contra coverage, the following exchange was printed in the New York Times without journalistic comment or follow-up:

[Congressman Jack] Brooks: Colonel North, in your work at the N.S.C. were you not assigned, at one time, to work on plans for the continuity of government in the event of a major disaster?

Both North’s attorney and Sen. Daniel Inouye, the Democratic Chair of the Committee, responded in a way that showed they were aware of the issue:

Brendan Sullivan [North’s counsel, agitatedly]: Mr. Chairman?

[Senator Daniel] Inouye: I believe that question touches upon a highly sensitive and classified area so may I request that you not touch upon that?

Brooks: I was particularly concerned, Mr. Chairman, because I read in Miami papers, and several others, that there had been a plan developed, by that same agency, a contingency plan in the event of emergency, that would suspend the American constitution. And I was deeply concerned about it and wondered if that was an area in which he had worked. I believe that it was and I wanted to get his confirmation.

Inouye: May I most respectfully request that that matter not be touched upon at this stage. If we wish to get into this, I’m certain arrangements can be made for an executive session.1

Brooks was responding to a story by Alfonzo Chardy in the Miami Herald about Oliver North’s involvement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in planning for “Continuity of Government” (COG). According to Chardy, the plans envisaged “suspension of the Constitution, turning control of the government over to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, emergency appointment of military commanders to run state and local governments and declaration of martial law during a national crisis.”2

Reagan had installed at FEMA a counterinsurgency team that he had already assembled as governor of California. The team was headed by Army Col. Louis Giuffrida, who had attracted Reagan’s attention by a paper he had written while at the US Army War College, advocating the forcible warrantless detention of millions of black Americans in concentration camps. Reagan first installed Giuffrida as head of the California National Guard, and called on him “to design Operation Cable Splicer. … martial law plans to legitimize the arrest and detention of anti-Vietnam war activists and other political dissidents.”3 These plans were refined with the assistance of British counterinsurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson, who had used massive detention and deportations to deal with the 1950s Communist insurgency in what is now Malaysia.

At the time few people (including myself) attached much importance to the Chardy story about COG. Chardy himself suggested that Reagan’s Attorney General, William French Smith, had intervened to stop the COG plan from being presented to the President, and in 1985 Giuffrida was forced out of office for having spent government money to build a private residence. But COG planning not only continued, it expanded.

Seven years later, in 1994, Tim Weiner reported in the New York Times that what he called “The Doomsday Project” – the search for “ways to keep the Government running after a sustained nuclear attack on Washington” – had “less than six months to live.”4

Weiner’s language was technically correct, but also very misleading. In fact COG planning now simply continued with a new target: terrorism. On the basis of Weiner’s article, the first two books to discuss COG planning, by James Bamford and James Mann, both reported that COG planning had been abandoned.5 Recently Tim Shorrock in 2008 repeated that “the COG program was abandoned during the Clinton administration,” and Shirley Anne Warshaw in 2009 wrote that “the Clinton administration… shut down the super-secret Project.”6 But on this specific point, all these otherwise excellent and well-informed authors were wrong.

What Weiner and these authors did not report was that in the final months of Reagan’s presidency the purpose of COG planning had officially changed: it was no longer for arrangements “after a nuclear war,” but for any “national security emergency.” This was defined in Executive Order 12656 of 1988 as: “any occurrence, including natural disaster, military attack, technological emergency, or other emergency, that seriously degrades or seriously threatens the national security of the United States.”7 In this way a totally legitimate program dating back to Eisenhower, of planning extraordinary emergency measures for an America devastated in a nuclear attack, was now converted to confer equivalent secret powers on the White House, for anything it considered an emergency.

This expanded application of COG was apparently envisaged as early as 1984, when, according to Boston Globe reporter Ross Gelbspan,

Lt. Col. Oliver North was working with officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency . . . to draw up a secret contingency plan to surveil political dissenters and to arrange for the detention of hundreds of thousands of undocumented aliens in case of an unspecified national emergency. The plan, part of which was codenamed Rex 84, called for the suspension of the Constitution under a number of scenarios, including a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua.8

In other words, extreme measures, designed originally to deal with an externally directed and devastating nuclear attack, were being secretly modified to deal with domestic dissenters: a situation that still pertains today.9

The Implementation of COG on 9/11

Clearly 9/11 met the conditions for the implementation of COG measures, and we know for certain that COG plans were implemented on that day in 2001, before the last plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. The 9/11 Report confirms this twice, on pages 38 and 326.10 It was under the auspices of COG that Bush stayed out of Washington on that day, and other government leaders like Paul Wolfowitz were swiftly evacuated to Site R, inside a hollowed out mountain near Camp David.11

But the implementation of COG went beyond short-term responses, to the installation of what Professor Shirley Anne Warshaw calls a ninety-day alternative “shadow government” outside Washington.

Cheney jumped into action in his bunker beneath the east Wing to ensure continuity in government. He immediately began to create his shadow government by ordering one hundred mid-level executive officials to move to specially designated underground bunkers and stay there twenty-four hours a day. They would not be rotated out, he informed them, for ninety days, since there was evidence, he hinted, that the terrorist organization al-Qa’ida, which had masterminded the attack, had nuclear weapons. The shadow government, as a result, needed to be ready to take over the government from the bunkers.12

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