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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 these were emergency plans to suspend the American constitution in the event of a nuclear attack (a legitimate concern). But press accounts alleged that the planning was for a more generalized suspension of the constitution.
As part of its routine Iran-contra coverage, the following exchange was printed in the New York Times, but 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.
But we have never heard if there was or was not an executive session, or if the rest of Congress was ever aware of the matter. According to James Bamford, “The existence of the secret government was so closely held that Congress was completely bypassed.” (Key individuals in Congress were almost certainly aware.)
Brooks was responding to a story by Alfonzo Chardy in the Miami Herald. Chardy’s story alleged that Oliver North was involved with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in plans to take over federal, state and local functions during a national emergency. This planning for “Continuity of Government” (COG) called for “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.”
To my knowledge no one in the public (including myself) attached enough importance to the Chardy story. Chardy himself suggested that Reagan’s Attorney General, William French Smith, had intervened to stop the COG plan from being presented to the President. 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.”
To say that nuclear attack planning was over was correct, But this statement was also very misleading. On the basis of Weiner’s report, the first two books on COG planning, by James Bamford and James Mann, books otherwise excellent and well-informed, reported that COG planning had been abandoned.
They were wrong.