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1980s: National Program Office Establishes Secret Line of Presidential Succession

The National Program Office (NPO), which is responsible for the highly classified Continuity of Government program, establishes a secret line of presidential succession for certain “narrowly defined” emergency situations. According to the traditional legal line of succession, should the president of the United States be killed or incapacitated, he is to be replaced by the vice president, followed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, then by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, then each cabinet member from the Secretary of State down. The alternative succession plan developed by the NPO, known officially as the Presidential Successor Support System, or “PS cubed,” would suspend these traditional rules and allow a small group of officials to appoint a new government. A source with knowledge of the plan says it would “suspend that natural succession and these individuals would have the right to appoint, virtually appoint, a new government.” The program, according to author James Mann, calls for “setting aside the legal rules of presidential succession in some circumstances, in favor of a secret procedure for putting in place a new ‘president’ and his staff.” The idea is 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 alternative succession plan allows the presidency, the vice presidency, and each cabinet position to be filled by individuals from both inside and outside the active government. In 1991, CNN will list the names of several people that may assume power should the plan be put into action, including Dick Cheney, Howard Baker, Richard Helms, Jeane Kirkpatrick, James Schlesinger, Edwin Meese, Dick Thornburgh, and Tip O’Neill. Some participants say the alternative succession plan is absolutely necessary to ensure the survival of the federal government, but others argue the secrecy of the program undermines its credibility. “If no one knows in advance what the line of succession is meant to be,” says a constitutional scholar from Duke University, “then almost by hypothesis no one will have any reason to believe that those who claim to be exercising that authority in fact possess it.” [CNN Special Assignment, 11/17/1991; Atlantic Monthly, 3/2004]

Entity Tags: Jeane Kirkpatrick, Edwin Meese, James R. Schlesinger, Thomas Phillip ‘Tip’ O’Neill, Jr, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Richard Helms, National Program Office, Richard Thornburgh, Howard Baker

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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