Friday, January 05, 2007

Slim Pickens Revenge (or What I would blog about if I were Tom Clancy)

Sort of a local story. Not getting as much attention as all the other stirring in DC is that our neighbor to the south, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, is now the President Pro-Tem of the US Senate.. a job that normally goes to the most senior senator in the majority. Who cares? If nothing else he is now 3 heartbeats away from the presidency. What about heartbeat #4?

ok.. unless you are really bored you ought to stop reading now.

If you think you know your civics really well, do you really understand the presidential line of succession? A little snippit of my past is that my career started as a defense analyst. In college I had courses focused on things like nuclear counterforce targeting and central front warplaning. No joke. It is a good thing that the end of the cold war made both of those skill sets obsolete overnight, but it does keep many things in perspective. An occasional topic that would come up is a exactly how the Presidential chain of succession worked (you have to know who gets to push the button). I actually once had a whole class focused on what happens in some of the Tom Clancy like scenarios where the Presidential chain of command gets wiped out. Even the best civics classes do not explain the real screwey possibilities out there.

What am I talking about? Most everyone knows the VP takes over when the Presidency is vacant. Actually the presidency is never vacant, the VP becomes President instantaneously. The swearing in of the Vice President they do is completely pro forma. Most also know that if the VP is not around you go looking for the Speaker of the House and then the President Pro Tem of the Senate, assuming they were born in the US and old enough to be president that is, otherwise they get skipped over theoretically. For years that would have meant nonagenarian Strom could have become president, a scary thought in itself. After that the cabinet secretaries in rank order of seniority based on when the department was created. (again dependent on the persons holding those positions being eligible by nativity and age) So the Secretary of State is first all the way down to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. For decades the Postmaster General was in that list as well. I think they still need some new law to put the Secretary of Homeland Security in that list although I think by default that person is there automatically at the end becasue the department was created last. There have been some attmepts in recent years to rejigger the order so the Homeland Defense moves up the list.

The fine print isn’t really that clear. It turns out that the Speaker or President Pro Tem, if they assume the presidency, serve out the remainder of the presidential term. However the cabinet secretaries only act as president and would be replaced by either the speaker of the house or the president pro tem once someone gets appointed to either of those posts. Which one? Well, that is the question. Essentially, whichever one gets appointed first. And if the President Pro tem becomes president, does he or she have to give it up when a Speaker of the House shows up? No. which makes this real complicated. There are even some completely untested secret rules in the House about who becomes the House Speaker pro-tem in case the speakership is vacant. Whether such a person could become the president is vague and probably untenable. Since that list could go through the 435 house members before being exhausted it would essentially obviate the provision for the Senate President Pro-tem or below from ever being needed in the line of succession. Wasn't it much clearer when Al Haig was put in charge?

So theoretically, there is this bizarre-yet-possible scenario where the house and senate race each other to appoint a top person. Whichever gets appointed first becomes the president. If the house and senate were controlled by different parties at the time..... the legal wrangling after the 2000 election would look like small claims court. Of course, if a plane rams into the capital during the state of the union speech, you probably lose a quorum of the supreme court as well.

So yes, this is all nuts. But people forget that the Cold War world was pretty nuts. Anyone remember watching the watered down movie "The Day After" or its much more accurate British version "Threads"? All those missiles were real, armed, and ready to launch 24 hours a day.. and yes, people really did think through things like who would be president. The massive luxury bunker under the Greenbrier Resort is evidence enough of that.

Ok, back to your regular programming.


Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

HBO did a movie called "By Dawn's Early Light" during the waning days of the Soviet Union, about a terrorist group that gains control of nuclear missiles in a break-away republic. Several of the missiles hit the U.S., including Washington, and the president is presumed dead. The Secretary of Agriculture becomes acting president and wants to escalate the war, even in the face of evidence that it was not started by the Soviet government.

Friday, January 05, 2007 11:47:00 AM  
Blogger EdHeath said...

The current TV show "Jericho" has somewhat revived the nuts-ness. I mean, are we really all that far from worrying about the line of succession? If all the airliners had headed to DC on September 11th, what might have happened? Yeah, we aren't worrying about missiles at the moment, but a Volkswagon minibus (my International Relations professor's favorite delivery platform in 1982) with a homebuilt nuke could essentially turn the Capitol, Supreme Court and the White House into one large crater. I wonder if the military has at least put fighters on the kind of Combat Air Patrol around DC that is apparently routinely put around aircraft carriers (Tom Clancy put the kind of knowledge previously only available to war-gamers in the hands of everyone). DC is still extremely vulnerable to threats from “off the shelf” weapons, never mind nukes from North Korea or Iran.

Saturday, January 06, 2007 9:44:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

I don't mean to make light of any of that. Sure, it's still an important question and surely the worse case scenarios out there are real enough. It's still a very different set of questions when you contemplate 20K warheads vs. those scenarios. There was even this body of thought that in an end of the world kind of exchange, would you want to target Moscow. Why wouldn't you? Basically you need someone to 'surrender' on the other side and if you decapitate the top of the command and control apparatus, there would be nobody around with the authority to do so. What choices.

as for defending DC. Last I was in DC there were some less than subtle signs of point defense around. My guess is that these were more for public show and whatever is really in place is less obvious. The obligatory Pittsburgh spin: where were the Nike point defense systems in Pittsburgh?

Saturday, January 06, 2007 1:36:00 PM  
Blogger Infinonymous said...

I don't remember much about defense points, but I seem to recall that

(a) Pittsburgh was considered a relatively high-priority target, because of heavy industry, research facilities

(b) the aspirational detonation point was reported to be directly above the Cathedral of Learning, with a secondary blast effect reaching downtown and the Westinghouse research campus in Churchill, and the topography would enable force to follow the rivers and destroy industrial facilities, and

(c) a communications building downtown -- across the street from the U.S.Steel Tower -- was designed to withstand an 'indirect' blast wave, and was one of a few "backbone" communications facilities expected to serve as an emergency national communications hub, if necessary. It is a relatively nondescript building, easily overlooked, lacking windows.

Of course, the Soviets never attempted to destroy Pittsburgh. Defensive measures would have been more profitably aimed, it turned out, against the city Democratic Committee, Tom Murphy and a number of other elected officials, and the administrators of city pension accounts.

Saturday, July 04, 2009 8:14:00 PM  
Blogger Vannevar said...

The obligatory Pittsburgh spin: where were the Nike point defense systems in Pittsburgh?

One in North Park became home to the Allegheny County Delta Force which is no more. Now there's a firing range there.

One in Oakdale.

That's all I've got.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012 9:22:00 PM  
Blogger Vannevar said...

Inevitably, there are photos - lest anybody think that unauthorized photos were a recent invention:


List of 12 Pittsburgh sites

Tuesday, January 24, 2012 9:31:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

and truth is stranger than fiction.. before the Nike sites were setup there was a point early in the Cold War when the powers that be thought it necessary to move antiaircraft artillery into Pittsburgh to defend against those Sov bombers that made it here:

Tuesday, January 24, 2012 9:40:00 PM  

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