At some point during the State of the Union coverage every year, usually during the extended "Entering the chamber and shaking hands with everyone and his brother" sequence, the commentators will note the absent Cabinet member, aka the Designated Survivor, who will accede to the Presidency if…well…everyone dies. This practice was born of Cold War paranoia about a Soviet nuclear "decapitation strike" that would wipe out the Federal government in the blink of an eye. It's rare that the entirety of the government is located in one room and the godless Communist was simply waiting for such an opportunity to pounce. A member of the Joint Chiefs once described the overall Continuity of Operations Plan as a means of protecting the presidency, not the President. In other words, it doesn't really matter who it is. Our system is designed to operate as long as someone fills the required roles, be it a low-ranking bureaucrat or the White House janitor. Pretty inspiring stuff, our government.
Curiously, it was only recently that four members of Congress (one Senator and Representative of each party) were included. Legislative continuity apparently did not strike anyone as important, but the survival of a small group of Congressmen would be necessary to nominate new individuals (presumably themselves) to the Vice-Presidency and Presidency Pro Tempore of the Senate. Part of me thinks it would be interesting to see a pitched battle for the Vice-Presidency between Robert Byrd and Chuck Grassley in a two-man Senate. Then again, in the wake of a nuclear strike I don't think many of us would be too concerned about finding someone to inhabit the smoldering ruins of the Blair House.
This year's DS, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, was in for a big disappointment if a nuclear strike hit the Capitol on Wednesday night. Since Hillary Clinton was attending a conference in London she would have become President and, well, at least the new post-apocalyptic government would have HUD covered. But Madame Clinton was not in a secure location; hypothetically she too could have been killed while out and about in London. So where was Mr. Donovan? Our secure locations, interestingly enough, are most likely the same as Dick Cheney's infamously undisclosed ones.
Even after all these years it is unlikely that there's anything more secure than the NORAD Cheyenne Mountain complex. There are also some underground facilities at Offut AFB in Omaha, home of the former Strategic Air Command (intentionally located in the dead middle of the continent, hence giving our land-based air defenses ample opportunity to shoot down incoming Soviet bombers). But Designated Survivors probably stay a lot closer to home. Everyone has heard of NORAD, but the undisclosed locations of choice in recent years are less famous. "Site R", aka the Raven Rock Mountain complex located 6 miles from Camp David, remains largely classified. Its primary tenant, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, is known to keep the facility prepared as an emergency Continuity of Government site but little information exists about the contents or other tenants of the bunker. The second option, Mount Weather in Berryville, VA, combines two facilities. The above-ground complex is the headquarters of FEMA while the underground portion remains a comparative mystery. The odds are excellent that Designated Survivors spend a few hours in one of these locations every year.
A few years ago I chuckled at a cable program that promised to count down "The greatest spies who ever lived." The greatest spy would, by definition, be someone we've never heard of. If he or she deserves the title, s/he maintained cover and was never identified. Such is the case with these "secret" facilities. If I can tell you about a place, it's not really the secret secret facility. There's probably something else out there, hidden beneath a rural mountain or hundreds of feet below some nondescript office building in Arlington. Then again in the age of satellite imaging and ground-penetrating radar it's awfully hard to keep secrets. When the Russians began digging an end-of-world superbunker to put NORAD to shame at Mount Yamantaw in the Urals, satellite data let the American intelligence community feel like it was there digging the hole. But who knows? The U.S. government can be good at keeping secrets on occasion and sites that are actually secret may exist. Only Cheney knows for sure.