Previously undisclosed transcripts of deliberations in the White House Situation Room—by one who was there. Hoover fellow Richard V. Allen opens a window on history.
Twenty years ago this spring, on March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot by a young man named John W. Hinckley Jr. while leaving a Washington hotel. The time was 2:30 p.m. As the president’s national security adviser, I was informed of the shooting almost at once and went immediately to the White House.
A crowd of shocked but curious White House staff members had gathered in the office of James A. Baker, Reagan’s chief of staff. Baker himself was at the hospital, along with White House counselor Edwin Meese. Secretary of State Alexander Haig arrived at the White House shortly after I did. I asked Haig, Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, White House counsel Fred F. Fielding, domestic adviser Martin Anderson, and David Gergen, a member of the White House staff, to accompany me to the Situation Room, located in the basement of the White House, secure behind electronic locks and guarded by uniformed Secret Service agents. That would prevent superfluous staffers from barging into the meeting, limit leaks, and effectively activate "crisis management," about which there had been a major flap only a few days before, when the White House made the decision to entrust that function to Vice President George Bush, much to Haig’s consternation. The group was soon joined by Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger; Attorney General William French Smith; Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis; Richard Darman, a presidential deputy assistant; and Admiral Daniel Murphy, the vice president’s chief of staff. At about 3:30 Meese called from the hospital. He reaffirmed that "the national command authority" rested with Cap Weinberger, in the absence of the vice president, and said that "Al [Haig] is to calm other governments."
All we knew in the first hour was that the president had been shot. We had virtually no information about the assailant or his motives or about whether he had acted alone. Vice President Bush was in the air over Texas. (I remember vividly the image of Haig, in a trench coat, shouting over a bad connection, "George, it’s Al . . . turn around . . . turn around!") Bush was on his way back, but he had no means of secure voice communications from his aircraft. The first assessments by the Pentagon revealed that more Soviet submarines than usual were off the East Coast.
By tradition, and to encourage complete candor in the most secret discussions and exchanges, there are no tape recorders allowed in the Situation Room’s conference area. On this occasion, however, I considered a recording to be absolutely essential in order to preserve an indisputable record. I instructed my top assistant, Janet Colson, to bring my personal tape recorder to the conference room. The tape recorder was placed in the center of the table, in plain view of all participants. There was no surreptitious taping of this event, and no one objected. Following are selections from some of these tapes. They are being made public for the first time, 20 years after the event.
"Do We Have a Football?"
In the interest of military readiness, Weinberger sought to take prudent security measures without raising the defensive condition—"Defcon," which has five stages, five being normal except for the U.S. Strategic Command (formerly the Strategic Air Command) and forces in Korea, whose normal condition is four. After discussion about the location of the "football"—a briefcase containing the nuclear release-code sequences that is always at the president’s side—a discussion began about the security measures.
COLSON: Someone out there wants to know if you want the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
ALLEN: I don’t think we need him here . . . Cap is the—Cap is here.
HAIG: Cap is the—and the football is near the vice president—so that’s fine.
ALLEN: We should get one over here. We have a duplicate one here.
HAIG: Get the football over here.
ALLEN: There is one at the military aide’s office. The football is in the closet . . . I don’t think we need the chair of the Joint Chiefs over here, do you? Let’s leave him over at the NMCC [National Military Command Center, at the Pentagon]. This is a draft statement, but I want to put something else in it.
FIELDING: Do you want any other Cabinet members?
ALLEN: No, they should all be told to stand by. Here’s the copy of that draft statement [on the president’s condition]. You don’t want the chairman of the Joint Chiefs over here?
WEINBERGER: Well, I want . . . not over here, I want him . . .
ALLEN: At the NMCC.
WEINBERGER: Yeah, and they should go on alert or be ready to go on alert. SAC [the Strategic Air Command] went on alert with Kennedy’s assassination.
The group paused to watch Gergen’s briefing from the press room. The conversation moved on for a time to Hinckley and to the condition of the press secretary, Jim Brady, badly wounded in the shooting. (At a later point in the tapes Regan observed, apropos of Hinckley’s attack, "Handgun control—we better think that policy through again in light of this. I’ll have to testify on this, so we better get something started on handgun control.") The discussion then returned to national security.
HAIG: We’ll be on a straight line from the hospital. So anything that is said, before it’s said, we’ll discuss at this table . . . and any telephone calls that anybody is getting with instructions from the hospital come to this table first [raising voice] . . . RIGHT HERE! And we discuss it and know what’s going on.
WEINBERGER: I have the chairman of the Joint Chiefs coming on, Jones, in just a second. We’re going to tell him to get alerts to the Strategic Air Command and such other units that seem to him to be desirable at this point.
HAIG: What kind of alert, Cap?
WEINBERGER: It’s a standby alert . . . just a standby alert.
HAIG: You’re not raising readiness?
WEINBERGER: No, but the main thing is that he should stay there in the Command Center. Not here.
DARMAN: Is that information not to be released up till . . .
ALLEN: It’ll leak . . .
WEINBERGER: Well, until we know more about it. The alert, they’ll probably put themselves on alert, but I just want to be sure.
HAIG: Do we have a football here? Do we?
ALLEN: Right there.
REGAN: Al! Don’t elevate it! Be careful!
HAIG: Absolutely! Absolutely! That’s why I toned down the message that was going out . . . there’s no reason for that.
WEINBERGER: Yeah, I don’t think anything that talks about continuity of government or anything . . . that sounds like we know a lot more than we do.
REGAN: This is apt to turn out to be a loner.
WEINBERGER: I think it was!
MURPHY: Cap, what do they mean by "alert"?
WEINBERGER: Well, an alert is . . .
MURPHY: We’ve been down this path once before with Henry [Kissinger].
WEINBERGER: That’s right. The alert simply is that there are conditions which may require very quick actions.
MURPHY: Are you sure that doesn’t mean Defcon three . . . or four?
WEINBERGER: No, no . . . I’ll fill in. . . . It’s a matter of being ready for some later call . . .
HAIG: Yeah, I think the important thing, fellows, is that these things always generate a lot of dope stories, and everybody is running around telling everybody everything that they can get out of their gut . . . and I think it’s goddamn important that none of that happens. The president, uh, as long as he is conscious and can function . . .
WEINBERGER: Well, that’s right . . . the vice president’s in an air force plane.
ALLEN: Well, just let me point out to you that the president is not now conscious.
HAIG: No, of course not.
"The Helm Is Right Here"
Perhaps the most memorable moment from the hours after the assassination attempt was Secretary of State Haig’s misunderstanding of the constitutional chain of succession, first in the Situation Room and then on national television. Needless to say, issues of legal authority were on everyone’s mind.
FIELDING: A rather technical thing is that the president can pass the baton temporarily under the law, and we’re preparing that right now . . . toward the eventuality . . .
HAIG: That’s what I was going to ask next. What are the legal . . .
FIELDING: It’s being prepared right now.
HAIG: That’s the pass the baton to the vice president . . .
FIELDING: On a temporary basis. It passes to him in writing from the president until the president rescinds it.
HAIG: Has somebody gone into the Eisenhower precedent on this? I think we need that from a public relations point of view.
FIELDING: Well, we may not want to put it out.
HAIG: No, the things you want to make note of are, first, precisely what happened, notification of the vice president, assembly of the key crisis Cabinet, preservation of continuity of command, and that it was handled.
WEINBERGER (on the telephone to the Pentagon): No, I think what we want to do is increase the degree of alertness so that in the event there should be anything required shortly, that could be done within a minimum amount of time . . .
Gergen interrupted to ask a question, and Haig declared that he himself was constitutionally the person in charge.
GERGEN: Al, a quick question. We need some sense, more better sense of where the president is. Is he under sedation now?
HAIG: He’s not on the operating table.
GERGEN: He is on the operating table!
HAIG: So the . . . the helm is right here. And that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here.
GERGEN: I understand that. I understand that.
The other Cabinet members and senior staff knew better—there were three others ahead of Haig in the constitutional succession. But Haig’s demeanor signaled that he might be ready for a quarrel, and there was no point in provoking one. In any event Weinberger had the military command authority.
WEINBERGER: We’ve got the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Joint Chiefs in the Military Command Center. The alert has been raised from a normal condition to a standby condition under which they can move to a much higher degree very quickly. There is no, there will be no publicity about it. And the degree of alertness at the moment is going to commanders only, so that there would not be a lot of leaks right away from the men. All of that on the basis that at this point it looks like an isolated incident, but there isn’t enough information and we want to remain alert. So that’s where the armed forces stand.
At this point I moved a few feet from the Situation Room conference area to the adjacent communications center to speak on a secure telephone line with Meese, at the hospital. I brought the tape recorder with me. During those few minutes Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes answered questions from the White House press corps. Asked who was running the government, Speakes responded, "I cannot answer that question at this time."
Haig, alarmed, came to the communications center and took me by the arm, and we moved toward the stairs to the main floor of the White House. Because I had been on the phone, I was unaware of what Speakes had said.
HAIG: Why don’t you come with me?
ALLEN (to staff): Okay, I’ll be back later . . .
HAIG: How do you get to the press room?
ALLEN: Up here.
HAIG: Yeah . . . he’s just turning this into a goddamned disaster!
ALLEN: Who has?
HAIG: How can he walk into the press room . . . Speakes . . .
ALLEN: Did he walk in up here?
HAIG: He’s up there now.
ALLEN: Christ almighty, why’s he doing that?
PRESS STAFFER: They want to know who’s running the government.
ALLEN: Oh, well, just a minute . . .
HAIG: We’ll assemble them . . . we’ll . . .
STAFFER: You’re coming back? [shouting]. They’re coming back again . . . the secretary of state! The secretary of state!
There was chaos in the press room. Speakes stood there, frazzled and slightly dazed, sensing that his remarks had caused a problem. Haig went directly to the rostrum. Until that moment he had been intensely focused on the crisis and had been steady, although testy and combative. Now I could see his knuckles turn white as he grasped the lectern; his arms shook and his knees began to wobble. I moved closer, thinking he might lose his balance or fall. Fortunately, the lectern shielded these involuntary body movements. Haig began his now famous presentation by describing actions we had taken in the Situation Room, adding mistakenly that "absolutely no alert measures . . . are necessary at this time or contemplated."
PRESS REPRESENTATIVE: Who is making the decisions for the government right now? Who is making the decisions?
HAIG: Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state, in that order, and should the president decide he wants to transfer the helm to the vice president, he will do so. As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the vice president and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.
Personal footnote: In his book Caveat (1984) Haig created a scenario in which I provided the rationale for his lunge to the press room lectern: "This was no fault of Speakes’s. He had not been part of our group. He had no current information. ‘This is very bad,’ Allen said. ‘We have to do something.’ ‘We’ve got to get him off,’ I said. Allen agreed. It was essential to reassure the country and the world that we had an effective government." The tapes reveal no such exchange. As noted, I was not in the conference area, where Speakes’s briefing could be heard, and as we arrived in the press room, I still did not know precisely what Speakes had said to cause Haig’s alarm.
"You’d Better Read the Constitution"
Back in the Situation Room there were only whispered side conversations until Regan spoke to the group at the table. The conversation took on a sharp and combative tone as the impact of Haig’s impromptu press conference began to sink in.
REGAN: Preliminary investigation by the FBI and the Secret Service, no plot, no reason why the suspect shouldn’t be in the area. They’re conducting a background investigation in Lubbock, Texas. He stayed at the Park Central Hotel here, which is one block from the Executive Office Building.
WEINBERGER: We have the SAC bases . . . we have the crews who are normally on alert twenty-four hours a day move from the base to their planes. The nearest submarine is [redacted] minutes, forty-seven seconds off, which is about two minutes closer than normal.
ALLEN: Nearest Soviet sub. Al, are you listening? [Redacted] minutes, forty-seven seconds—the nearest Soviet sub.
WEINBERGER: Yeah. Not enough to worry about. They’re in and out there all the time, but it is a close approach. And the bomber crews of the Strategic Air Command, they are always on the alert, certain numbers, and those that are on alert now are moving from alert in their quarters and on the post to their planes. Simply stated, that’s all . . .
HAIG: That’s based on the Soviet situation and not on anything here?
WEINBERGER: Well, that’s based on the idea that until we know a little bit more about it, it is better to be in the plane which saves three and a half to four minutes than it is to stay in their quarters.
HAIG: I said up there, Cap . . . I’m not a liar. I said there had been no increased alert.
WEINBERGER: Well, I didn’t know you were going up, Al. I think if . . .
HAIG: I had to, because we had the question already started and we were going to be in a big flap.
WEINBERGER: Well, I think we could have done a little better if we had concerted on a specific statement to be handed out. When you’re up there with questions, why then it’s not anything you can control, and . . .
HAIG: Well, we had just discussed that here at the table, and we said we were not going to increase alert.
WEINBERGER: It may not be increasing the alert from a technical point of view, but once you get the additional information which I got about the one sub being closer than they’ve been before, then it seemed prudent to me to save three or four minutes.
HAIG: Yeah, but I think we could have discussed it.
WEINBERGER: Yeah, well, you were not here. I didn’t know that you were going to make any statement, and I don’t think it was a good idea to make a statement when you are with a question period. I think the best thing . . .
HAIG: Well, you have the right to say that when we discuss it, and we did talk about it and everyone agreed there wouldn’t be an increased alert.
WEINBERGER: I didn’t know you were going up. I didn’t have the information about the sub at that time. The stuff is coming in every three or four minutes.
HAIG: Well, you’re not telling me we’re on increased alert.
WEINBERGER: We have changed the condition to the extent I indicated.
HAIG: Is that a Defcon increase?
WEINBERGER: No, I don’t think it is formally classified as such.
ALLEN: It’s a change of degree, is it not? It’s a change . . .
WEINBERGER: It’s an increased degree of alertness, yes.
ALLEN: Within Defcon five, I presume.
After a discussion of how to brief Vice President Bush when he arrived, the talk returned to national security and whether to deploy the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP), a specially equipped Boeing 747.
HAIG: Let me ask you a question, Cap. Is this submarine approach, is that what’s doing this, or is it the fact that the president’s under surgery?
WEINBERGER: What’s doing what, Al?
HAIG: That we are discussing whether or not to put the NEACP bird up in the air.
WEINBERGER: Well, I’m discussing it from the point of view that at the moment, until the vice president actually arrives here, the command authority is what I have . . . and I have to make sure that it is essential that we do everything that seems proper.
HAIG: You’d better read the Constitution.
HAIG (laughing): You’d better read the Constitution. We can get the vice president any time we want.
WEINBERGER: Well, one way or another, the initial steps, because he’s not in a position there to take all of them without consultation, one way or another we ought to prepare at least enough so that we can move more rapidly than we could otherwise.
HAIG: Is it because of the submarine or because of the incident, that’s the question I’m asking.
WEINBERGER: The reason that I asked to have them move to the planes is because of the incident, and I would continue to take that position until I know absolutely definitely that it’s an isolated incident, which I think it is. But I don’t know that yet, and I don’t want to take any kinds of risk. The risk of some newspaper story or some rumor is a hell of a lot less than not having things in place.
As the afternoon wore on, questions about Haig’s press room performance continued to be raised. At one point an annoyed Haig can be heard on the phone in the background saying, "Not succession . . . absolutely right. . . . Tell them to straighten it out—call them in and explain it. . . . Of course. My God, I know the pecking order, come on!"
Vice President Bush landed at Andrews Air Force Base at 6:30 p.m. and arrived at the White House a half hour later. He was briefed extensively. Decisions were made about the following day’s schedule, and Bush prepared remarks for a press briefing. The president’s condition was stable, and it was clear that he would make a full recovery.
It is important to point out that, despite brief flare-ups and distractions, the crisis management team in the Situation Room worked well together. The congressional leadership was kept informed, and governments around the world were notified and reassured. Meese and Baker, at the hospital, where the helm really was, performed calmly and skillfully. The next morning, as the vice president and the Cabinet assembled for the postcrisis briefing, Haig leaned over to me and said in a low voice, "Have you got your maniacs under control? They don’t look too sharp this morning."
Richard Allen is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. The holder of a master’s degree in political science from the University of Notre Dame, Allen was a senior staff member at Hoover from 1966 to 1968, at which time he took a leave of absence to serve as Richard Nixon’s foreign policy coordinator subsequently serving twice in the Nixon White House. He was Ronald Reagan’s chief foreign policy adviser from 1977 to 1980 and served as President Reagan’s first national security adviser from 1981 to 1982. A Hoover fellow since 1983, he is currently a member of the US Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee.
This essay originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, April 2001. Reprinted with permission. Available from the Hoover Press is Revolution: The Reagan Legacy, by Martin Anderson. To order, call 800-935-2882.