Oh, god. I'm reluctant to write this particular column. I've been scarred by this kind of story before. I've learned that it's difficult to write about the sources of paranoia without spreading paranoia.
But the subject, NSPD-51—that's National Security Presidential Directive 51—and the attendant explosion of blogospheric paranoia about it deserve attention. Even if you don't believe, as I don't, that NSPD-51 is a blueprint for a coup in the guise of plans for "continuity of government" in the event of a national emergency (such as a terrorist attack during an election campaign). Even if you don't believe, as I don't, that it will be used as a pretext for canceling the upcoming presidential election and preserving "continuity" of this administration in office.
Nonetheless, the specifics of the directive are a matter of legitimate concern that has not been given the urgent and sustained attention it deserves by Congress or the mainstream media.
I first became aware of the extent of the paranoia when I read the following comment, which was appended to an essay Naomi Wolf wrote for the Huffington Post:
Scenario for 2008: Sometime in middle to late summer, perhaps early fall, a "terrorist attack," or a natural disaster occurs, allowing Bush to suspend the elections in the name of "national security," and take the control of the government via the "National Security Presidential Directive/NSPD 51" and "Homeland Security Presidential Directive/HSPD-20," released by the WH May 9th of this year. He could remain in control as long as he wanted. Now, wouldn't THAT be an interesting nightmare?
Crazy, right? Well after I read it I Googled "NSPD-51" and got something like 36,000 hits. (HSPD-20 is essentially the same directive under a different title.) Most of the ones I sampled elaborated on the "nightmare" coup scenario above. Of course, Google hits are not evidence of the facts, only of the temper of the times, and the times are seething with paranoia.
But that doesn't mean NSPD-51 doesn't deserve careful scrutiny. Consider that an election-eve al-Qaida attack, for instance, is not inconceivable. What if a nuclear device goes off in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles the weekend before the election and a warning is issued that the other two cities will be hit on Election Day?
Who will decide whether the elections in those heavily Democratic states should be put off or whether the entire election should be postponed until ... when? Until the bodies are cleared, the gamma radiation has subsided? Just how wise and fair—and constitutional—are the brand-new mechanisms for "continuity of government" that NSPD-51 has put into effect with almost no prior and little subsequent discussion last May?
And there's another paranoia-inducing element of the story: The existence of "classified continuity annexes" whose content has been kept secret even from the House Committee on Homeland Security. A troubling aspect of the story that, so far as I know, only one mainstream media reporter, Jeff Kosseff of the Portland Oregonian, has pursued.
As it happens, I had a troubling experience in the past writing about paranoid fears that an unpopular president will cancel a presidential election. The experience helped turn me into a conspiracy theory skeptic, so let me briefly recount that incident—which, curiously enough, also involved the Portland Oregonian—so you'll understand the perspective I bring to the question.
Return with me to 1970, another moment of seething paranoia two years before Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign, before Watergate was even a gleam in Gordon Liddy's eyes. A time of war and of an increasingly frustrated and suspicious anti-war movement. It was my first year as a reporter, and the whole episode started with a cab driver from Staten Island.
As historian and frequent Slate contributor David Greenberg recounts it in his thoughtful book Nixon's Shadow, "the rumor [that Nixon had a secret plan to cancel the '72 presidential election] first appeared in print on April 5 in the Portland Oregonian, the Staten Island Advance and other Newhouse-owned newspapers. According to the item, the administration had asked the RAND Corporation ... to study whether 'rebellious factions using force or bomb threats would make it unsafe to conduct an election' and how the president might respond. Ron Rosenbaum, a reporter from the Village Voice, heard about the article from a Staten Island cab driver and investigated. He reported in The Voice on April 16 that RAND and the administration denied that any such study existed, but then playfully pointed out that they would surely deny it if it were true. Rosenbaum added that the country would just have to wait until 1972 to see."
Lesson here: Don't get too "playful" when writing about conspiracy theories. The problem with being "playful" back then was that much of the anti-war movement read the Voice at the time, and my story ignited a firestorm of paranoia. Soon there were "documents" of dubious authenticity circulating that purported to be RAND memos outlining plans to round up and lock up leaders of the anti-war movement. Eventually Pat Moynihan, then a Nixon consigliere, thundered against the rumor as an example of the intrusion of irrationality into politics.
The thing is, there's nothing wrong with planning for "continuity of government," especially in the nuclear age. Planning for continuity doesn't necessarily mean plotting a coup, although that's the way my story was read and spread. (Of course, meanwhile—proving that reality can outrun paranoia—the Nixon administration was planning to subvert the election, anyway, with the assortment of illegal actions and dirty tricks that became known as Watergate.)
Still, there's nothing I feel the need to apologize about for pursuing that story then (or this one now). Indeed, it was marginally possible back then, when the anti-war movement had become massive and some were turning to violence, that the RAND Corp. might have been involved in planning how to maintain "continuity" in the face of violent disruptions.
But the fact that the extreme worst-case scenario didn't happen in 1972 (no coup attempt) left one big question unanswered—and NSPD-51 illustrates it still hasn't been settled in any satisfactory way: What are the contingency plans for holding or postponing a national election in the midst of a traumatic national emergency?
I've studied the actual presidential directive, which you can find here.
In many respects, it's innocuous. It doesn't, for instance, tamper with the procedures for presidential succession in case, say, the chief executive and vice president are killed. And there's a value to requiring that every government agency prepare a plan to deal with a catastrophe.