The Secret Powers Of WHMO and The "Continuity Of The Presidency" Programs
Check With These Folks When Shit Hits The Fan
By WILLIAM ARKIN and MARC AMBINDER
In a major calamity, when all hell breaks loose, where the question of presidential succession is paramount, the most powerful person in the country could be an unassuming retired U.S. Navy captain named Paul J. Jackson.
Jackson has worked for the White House Military Office (WHMO), on and off, for over 25 years. He was director of Presidential Contingency Programs starting in the Clinton administration and then rose to become the director of policy, plans and requirements, a position he held from June 1995 until May 2014, resuming that same position again under President Joe Biden. The powers he wields are based on more than a half-century of continuously revised Top Secret classified presidential directives, all buried by special access programs that shield continuity program even from most of the highest-level officials in the White House.
Those special access programs (and there are multiple offshoots) involve everything from successor protection and evacuation, movement, and connectivity to the levers of civil government, military command and nuclear weapons decision-making. The so-called National Mission Force – constituted largely of special operators from the Joint Special Operations Command and national-level assets form the FBI and Department of Justice – provide most of the tactical oomph to implement these programs, while WHMO logisticians and White House Communications Agency communicators keep the president (and the vice president) in the loop.
Jackson oversees a staff of about 400, 3/4th of whom work for the presidential contingency programs directorate. In a government of about two million people, about 3200, so far as we can tell, have been formally and fully indoctrinated into these multi-billion-dollar contraptions covering what’s to be done in the most calamitous and extraordinary circumstances.
These 3200 people form the nucleus of the secret, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency government: that which ensures the continuity of presidency (COP) itself. During the past decade, the WHMO has taken full control of these programs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Continuity Programs organization deals more concretely with the 30 departments and agencies of the executive branch.
Before 9/11, the Department of Defense played a larger role as implementer of presidential continuity programs. That effort today is largely focused on powers and succession scenarios during a nuclear war: who gets to start one, who gets to finish one, and how they’d try to do it.
The current version of the program is called the National Leadership Command Capability (NLCC); its charge is to open and maintain secure communication when the most difficult decisions need to be made without there being much time to think about them.
The system has been set up, with special redundant pathways, to allow the Department of Defense’s senior civilians and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be in direct and secure contact with the President and advisers in almost any emergency, almost anywhere, almost anytime.
The NLCC is designed to make sure the President can:
issue military directives and nuclear control orders to forces
communicate immediately with combatant commanders overseas
conference in key advisers
receive intelligence and tactical warning
communicate directly with deployed nuclear forces — although this capacity remains in development
communicate securely, with other countries, despite jamming, sabotage efforts and EMP effects from nuclear and cyber weapons
speak, when necessary, with the American people.
We say “almost,” because a complicated, compartmented, classified enterprise like the NLCC is not going to be perfect, its advocates would concede, because of the laws of physics and human behavior.
The plans are still largely oriented around nuclear war, but WHMO contingency scenarios now include geographically agnostic (or distributed) disasters, like climate change, crippling cyber attacks, flooding in the DC area, pandemics, and even asteroid threats. (Don’t Look Up!)
That’s where the question of who’s president comes in. It’s theoretically answered by the execution of these “Continuity of the President” programs, and it’s perched at the apogee of a four stage system of federal continuity. At the lowest rung is “Continuity of Operations” – mostly unclassified – dealing with the business workings of government agencies in catastrophes, natural and manmade. Then comes “Continuity of Government”, more sensitive programs to ensure that the executive branch can perform its basic functions as a single entity. Next up is “Enduring Constitutional Government” policies and programs that mostly involve the continuity of the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and communications with the Supreme Court. As the constitutional successors to the presidency, these two officers (Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Patrick Leahy) are the counterparts to the President and Vice President.
Continuity of the Presidency is the highest of these four tiers. It oversees not just the pre-war and pre-disaster procedures already in place to make sure a “recognized authority can execute direction and control” but the entire portfolio of Presidential emergency actions.
These include, according to the July 2021 FEMA “Guide to Continuity of Government”: “Issuing orders, proclamations, and messages or declaring a state of emergency as a basis to impose curfew, evacuate, restrict movement, quarantine, declare powers of eminent domain, etc.”
The WHMO keeps this virtual lockbox of documents and programs – often narrowly referred to as Presidential Emergency Action Documents (PEADs). In fact, PEADs — there are more than 50 of them — are enabling directives for a much larger ecosystem of secret orders.
The system of presidential emergency action covers how the President might get Congress to sign emergency legislation; how Congress can reconstitute as a body; and how the President and Congress can file emergency petitions with the Supreme Court if the electric grid is wiped out, and also the “then what” — how presidential orders are executed by departments and agencies in distress, or when these entities are trying to determine who is in charge.
We know a lot about COOP, a fair amount about COG, and Congress itself is working to modernize its role in the ECG portfolio.
But it’s the COP that is most important and most opaque. Why is it important?
Because it is largely extra-legal; and there might not be a way around that. Extra-legal doesn’t necessarily mean illegal; it means that there exists no possible legal structure to anticipate or account for them.
The current COP programs assume, when they kick in, that constitutional government has been suspended, somehow. Read that again: the predicate for these programs is that things have gotten so bad that these programs need to function in order to restore constitutional government, regular order, and the rule of law. Specifically, they focus on the president: making sure he or she is able to execute the powers of a head of state, including communication with other countries and with U.S. States; to serve as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, including the power to start or stop a nuclear war; and to serve as CEO of the government – overseeing the response to a mass catastrophe and eventually reconstituting the government.
The president here is meant to denote the elected president, and if he or she is killed or out of contact, the vice president, the speaker of the house and the president pro tempore of the Senate, in order. All of the rules for leadership (and nuclear decision-making) are hidden within the most sensitive special access programs, the who and the how, that takes into consideration authorizing even military officers to make the decisions regarding nuclear weapons, if there is no constitutional civil government in place.
Where is WHMO in the org chart? Who does it report to? Well, it’s hard to say exactly. An Assistant to the President for management oversees the apparatus, but the Director of the WHMO, an executive office of the president (EOP) appointee (and currently Maju Varghese) is the true bridge between COP, COG, and ECG, nominally reporting to the White House chief of staff. As the system has become more and more complex post-9/11 (and now post January 6), permanent and highly knowledgeable civilian officials have taken over the day-to-day. That’s where Paul Jackson comes in…
What we don't know is how WHMO and Paul Jackson will actually identify presidential successors when the issue isn’t clear. The Director of Secret Service will follow WHMO’s guidelines here: if WHMO determines that the Speaker of the House is the living (or viable) successor in a given circumstance, then the Service will protect her. This is much less straightforward than it sounds. What if the President and Vice President are both suddenly hobbled by a severe virus and are not able to perform their duties cogently? This is no longer an unlikely scenario. What if Washington is cut off from communications due to attacks on electrical power or cyber infrastructure? Who then rules?
We are told to believe – in the absence of legislation or publicly available directives – that the WHMO not only has worked its way through what's supposed to happen, but will do so in strict compliance with the Constitution. We don’t know the protocols for staff to determine whether a president is unable, cognitively or otherwise, to order the commencement of a military operation.
We don’t know – and Congress doesn’t either – how presidential continuity is preserved when the Cabinet is incapacited.
There are good reasons to keep some of this information secret, but there is no acceptable reason to keep the basic principles from everyone outside of WHMO. Few have heard of Paul Jackson or his boss, and that in itself should get you wondering what function the secrecy really serves.