WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Herman Khan, the brilliant thinker who founded the Hudson Institute, used to call it "thinking the unthinkable." Edward Teller, inventor of the hydrogen bomb, described it as "prudent planning for the ultimate catastrophe." Bill Baker, the genius from Bell Labs, once told me it was the "most difficult engineering challenge" he ever faced. And Gen. Andy Goodpaster, the nation's first national security advisor, called it, "a strategy for democratic survival."
They were all correct, and they were all talking about the same thing -- a tightly held, top-secret program they helped design to ensure that the government of the United States could never be "decapitated."
From the summer of 1981 until the autumn of 1983, these four remarkable men, and a small handful of others, including some who remain in government service today, convened regularly in a conference room of the Old Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. We called them the "Wise Men" -- and they were. They thought through and planned the deployment of a multibillion dollar system to minimize the chance that a Soviet missile, a terrorist, an errant weapon of mass destruction or a natural disaster could ever leave the United States bereft of civilian leadership as specified in the U.S. Constitution.
As directed by President Reagan, the first task for the "Wise Men" was to ensure that the office of the presidency -- and particularly the president's role as commander in chief -- would survive the most daunting threats imaginable. None of us involved in "The Project" ever wanted the awesome power of the U.S. armed forces to be out of the control of an elected president or a constitutionally mandated successor. Congress agreed and secretly appropriated the necessary funds. And until the terror attack of Sept. 11, 2001, the system the "Wise Men" helped create was never used in an emergency.
Thankfully, on that terrible Tuesday, all the procedures and equipment put in place almost two decades before worked as planned. And while late-night comedians joked about Vice President Cheney being at an "undisclosed location" for seemingly endless days, everyone understood why he was not at his desk in the West Wing of the White House.
Unfortunately, there are still unresolved vulnerabilities in our Continuity of Government program. When I left work on "The Project" late in 1983, plans were still being devised for ensuring that the nation would never be without a Congress.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.
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