The National Program Office (NPO) was an office of the United States Government, established to ensure continuity of government in the event of a national disaster.
The NPO was established by a secret executive order (National Security Decision Directive 55) signed on 14 September 1982 by President Ronald Reagan during the Cold War in preparation for a nuclear war, presumably with the Soviet Union.
The NPO plan was classified Top Secret, codeword Pegasus. It was also referred to as Project 908 (also known as “Nine Naught Eight"). The only oversight was by a Project Pegasus committee chaired by then-Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush.
A Pentagon agency, the Defense Mobilization Systems Planning Activity, was given the task of making plans to glue together a shattered Government. But the planners found it impossible, even in peacetime, to coordinate the White House, the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and other agencies.
The project was an amalgam of more than 20 “black programs”—so highly classified that only a handful of military and civilian personnel knew of them.
“That raised the bureaucratic nightmare to the nth power,” Mr. Blair said. “No one knew what anyone else was doing. It was hard to find out even the technical characteristics of some of the plans. You had all the difficulties of creating command-and-control networks cutting across bureaucratic lines, combined with the secrecy of black programs—even the bureaucrats running it were handicapped.”
Far more elaborate plans began with National Security Decision Directive 55, an order signed by President Reagan in January 1983 and still top secret. The directive to create “continuity of government” during and after a long nuclear war was drafted by, among others, Oliver L. North, then an obscure marine on the National Security Council staff.
In the Reagan Administration, the project was supervised by Vice President George Bush. A senior C.I.A. officer, Charles Allen, was deputy director. In the Reagan and Bush Administrations, the project involved hundreds of people, including White House officials, Army generals, C.I.A. officers and private companies run by retired military and intelligence personnel.
Then the fragmented leadership would be woven together with a communications system of space satellites and specially outfitted tractor-trailer trucks equipped with sophisticated transmitters. Convoys of at least 16 lead-lined trucks, each commanded by an Army colonel, were to hurtle down the nation’s highways eluding Soviet warheads after the Pentagon was destroyed. On the trucks and throughout the nation, sophisticated radio and computer terminals shielded from the effects of nuclear explosions were to link surviving military and civilian officials after the capital was destroyed.
Billions of dollars were spent on such equipment, much of which is now gathering dust in Army depots.
Barry Horton, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications and intelligence programs, said that he could answer no questions about the project, since “the details of these efforts remain classified.” Other Pentagon officials confirmed that most of the project was being mothballed as part of an overall review of nuclear war plans, although none would agree to be quoted, citing secrecy strictures.
But the secrecy surrounding the project began crumbling after Mr. North referred obliquely to his role in it in Congressional hearings on the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987. After the subject was raised, Representative Jack Brooks, Democrat of Texas, asked if “plans for the continuity of government” included a “contingency plan in the event of an emergency that would suspend the American Constitution.”
In the Bush Administration, members of Congress and the press became aware of internal Army disputes involving the project. Some concerned awards of multimillion-dollar, no-bid contracts to former Army officials who had left the program. Others involved Army analyses concluding that the project’s crucial communications links would break down in a crisis.
High-ranking Army officials took strong measures to quash the unwanted publicity. According to a 1989 House Armed Services Committee report and Pentagon records, they ordered an officer attached to the project—a soldier with a self-confessed record of drug abuse and black-marketeering—to identify whistle-blowers within the program and smear them as Soviet spies.
Last year, a military satellite communications system separate from but crucial to the Doomsday project—the $27.4 billion Milstar program—was deemed incapable of enduring a long nuclear war. A scaled-down Milstar satellite, the first of six now scheduled to be built, was launched in February, with half its classified communications gear stripped out and replaced by ballast.
While some “continuity of government” programs continue under the aegis of Pentagon planners, they are pale versions of the vision laid out by President Reagan in 1983.
“They are realizing these requirements are throwbacks to the cold war,” Mr. Blair said. “They are not relevant to today’s world.”