American Coup

How a Terrified Government Is Destroying the Constitution


By William M. Arkin

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A stunning exploration of the subtle erosion of freedom in an age of concocted fear and de facto military authority.

When we think of a military coup, the first image that comes to mind is a general, standing at a podium with a flag behind him, declaring the deposing of elected leaders and the institution of martial law.

Think again. In American Coup, William Arkin reveals the desk-bound takeover of the highest reaches of government by a coterie of “grey men” of the national security establishment. Operating between the lines of the Constitution, this powerful and unelected group fights to save the nation from “terror” and weapons of mass destruction while at the same time modifying and undermining the very essence of the country. Many books are written about secrecy, surveillance, and government law-breaking; none so powerfully expose the truth of everyday life in this state of war.


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We are a nation living with two sets of laws, one public law as guided by the Constitution and a second, invisible text that exists between the lines of that document. The Constitution specifies the ABCs, upholding public welfare and common defense with powers granted to the federal government that are excruciatingly limited and balanced so as to not infringe on the inherent rights of the people or the member states of the republic. Between the lines are the XYZs of the extraordinary, the charter of another realm, one beyond the reach of Congress, the courts, and the people; a system of federal preeminence and an executive preoccupation that possesses self-authored powers to govern in the hereafter, subtly reordering the relationship between the people and its government in the here and now.

This duality—codified through decades of deliberate concealment—purports to merely supplement the two-hundred-year-old doctrine that couldn't possibly anticipate societal vulnerability to man-made and natural threats in an age of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. But the implementation of the XYZs is not lagging in some legislative queue; it is already in place, the very essence of executive tyranny our forefathers feared. It is the elevation of common defense above public welfare, expediency turned into necessity, a subtle house of correction offering the illusion of security. This tug-of-war has been ever present during our lifetimes, the shining promise being that someday we will return to the application of the basic principles enshrined in the Constitution. Yet we are not going back. The soul of our nation, the principle of individual rights upheld by the union of constraints on executive and government power, is at risk. At no point in our history have we faced a challenge like the one we face now, a wholly permanent state of martial life hidden in fine print, secrecy, fear, and the dream of guaranteed physical protection.

I became interested in underground government on the day John Hinckley, Jr., attempted to kill President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Then a young Washington analyst and budding expert, I was called upon to comment in the news media about how the country was run amidst chaos. Over the years, I researched and wrote about the world of what-if, my heart pumping as hard when I discovered some vague piece of the puzzle buried in budget documents and government reports as when I drove out to some Washington suburb to take a look at an invisible hideout.

I was never seized with a fear of nuclear war during this period, so I fell into the camp that saw "continuity of government" as more comical than sinister—more the latest incarnation of duck and cover and Bert the turtle, much closer to Dr. Strangelove than Seven Days in May—a waste of money perhaps but not really dangerous. It seemed common sense to me that plans should have been made for managing the nation if a president was murdered, especially in the nuclear age. But I was swept up in the conventional wisdom that there was a twisted and unbalanced militarism behind Secretary of State (and retired general) Alexander Haig's infamous "I am in control here" proclamation, not really able to see or articulate the larger system of emergency procedures that seized greater import.

Three decades later I could adeptly recount both the history and continuity of these preparations for control after catastrophe: priorities and procedures that seemed to persist through Republican and Democratic administrations, conservative and liberal, peacetime and wartime. But there was one huge difference after 9/11: these secret procedures and plans weren't just geared toward the possibility of Doomsday, for some single and distant final event, because Doomsday was now every day.

Something new was going on, much of it explained in Top Secret America, the Washington Post newspaper series and book that Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Dana Priest and I collaborated on for three years. The basic premise of that investigation was that the post-9/11 civil defense industry was not only bureaucratically but geographically transforming the nation. The lights had never gone out in many of the facilities that had been used during the Reagan years and before; others were reintroduced, the government urging the news media to keep their locations secret from al Qaeda even though a good number of them, such as Mount Weather and Raven Rock, the primary civilian and military underground bunkers just outside Washington, had been mentioned in numerous books and articles in years previous.1 And while the old initials and logos remained, there were some notable new acronyms and euphemisms that hinted of secret activities down vaporous paths.

Among the phrases that caught my attention as I dug through documents and spoke with sources after 9/11 was "martial law." Mentioning the possibility wasn't new, yet martial law hadn't been declared on the day of the attacks, nor during the darkest days of the Cold War, and it seemed the stuff reserved for other countries or conspiracy nuts. On the other hand, General Tommy Franks, the commander of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, gave an interview in, of all places, Cigar Aficionado, saying that if terrorists struck the United States with weapons of mass destruction, the country would likely discard the Constitution for some kind of military government.2 Not exactly the ravings of some 9/11 denier or Internet paranoid.

Then there was the word "extraordinary"—in theory, not exactly something to ring alarm bells; the government throws around terms like "extraordinary" to mean just about everything and anything. But when it came to the classified world, I was increasingly seeing the word attached to something very specific, a term on a very particular continuum (as military briefers like to say) that starts on the left as peacetime (what is sometimes labeled "steady state" on briefing slides, or "temporary circumstances," since technically there is no peacetime anymore) and then moves toward a middle ground of "crisis" and then over to "emergency" conditions three-quarters down the line before becoming "extraordinary" as it scrapes the right edge.3 Variations found in new homeland security documents and congressional testimony included "rare circumstances," "extreme circumstances," and "gravest possibilities."

Curious, I followed up with a multitude of sources, many high-ranking and some even in positions where they would have to know, but got only a lot of vague dead ends. A few dropped hints, others communicated with me in the cautionary and disapproving way I had grown used to when reporting on the secret world, or began to speak in tongues in such a way that placed more dark alleyways on the same grid. Several insider friends, some of whom I had been familiar with for over thirty years, said frankly that they didn't know anything. It was a maddeningly thorny cul-de-sac.

I might have given up on my quest to understand martial law and the realm of the extraordinary except for one thing: I was also hearing a biased supposition from so many—including many on the inside—that anything as diabolical as plans for martial law and "all that stuff" surely was the creation of the Bush administration and its engagement with the "dark side."4 Now, that I knew wasn't true: continuity and preparations for the possibility of martial law weren't new and weren't an invention of 9/11. The Reagan team had dusted off Eisenhower programs, renovating and testing plans and procedures as part of their strategy to fight and survive a protracted nuclear war. During the Clinton years, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and even a society-ending Y2K scare became the new justifications for another flurry of codification. And those convinced that this mentality was peculiar to the Bush administration would have been flummoxed had they realized that Obama and company worked not, as promised, to change course but merely to make the extraordinary perhaps more palatable and friendly for consumption by a nation of hopers.

Nevertheless, many intelligent people continued to believe that the dastardly plans for a military takeover were perpetrated solely by Bush and Cheney schemers, or the neocons, or the unbridled work of some evil cabal within the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, or some other three-letter agency. Surely the conspirators were the military-industrial complex—what we now called merely "contractors"—and the corporate greedy; or mysterious men with secret powers and multifarious motives working in the shadows à la The X-Files. Given the Obama campaign's refutation of the "Cheney way," any documentary traces of martial law and the "extraordinary" were widely seen, and presented as, the detritus of the previous administration or, more sinister, evidence of a secret government beyond Obama's reach.5

Then it dawned on me that my search for proof of some cabal administering decades-old contingency plans was too narrow. The term "martial law" is alarming and alluring as an ominous story line, but the truth seemed to be that there was some "state of" that we were already "under" that wasn't quite that, and even more, was intentionally and subtly constructed to avoid either direct military rule or the necessary societal recognition and acceptance that constitute the law.

Martial law might someday be implemented, I surmised, but even if what Tommy Franks indelicately referred to did transpire, what would be implemented would surely be far less Hollywood in its drama or even less consequential in a civics sense than whatever unimaginable event would have had to unfold to necessitate it. And martial law as an ultimate and unfortunate possibility really requires no secret preparations. Civil laws, even unclassified military regulations, could carefully define what might trigger its imposition and what would terminate it and set the conditions for a return to normalcy. Surely if Washington can be attacked, the expectation of the citizenry must be that the government prepares? And though there is a hallowed tradition that dictates the separation of a federal standing military from American civil life, who among us is hurt—even aggrieved—if the most respected institution in American society steps forward or takes the handoff in a national moment of need?

If I couldn't answer these questions, any inquiry into the underground and martial law was just pandering to the paranoid or the headline-hungry.

There were other questions, too. If some unlegislated program persists for over sixty years, even if it is under secret rules, haven't Congress and the people in absentia made it common law? We live with our nation at war but there is no draft, no wartime rationing, no overt or obvious curtailment of our freedoms; beyond the dollar- and-cents reality that a good chunk of one's federal income tax payments help fund the troops, people can choose to stay completely uninvolved. In exchange, we go about our lives, giving those who do the fighting license to care for the eventualities. And therein lies the issue: license to what? There are those who are charged with protecting the country from nuclear attack, from a terrorist strike with a weapon of mass destruction, charged with maintaining continuity of government and dealing with national calamity. They are responsible for maintaining the last line of defense. Yet what if a terrorist managed to explode a nuclear weapon, or spread a society-killing virus? What would happen? How do we create internal security when we also have immutable freedoms of religion and assembly and speech that are supposed to prevent the government from overtly probing who is a trusted American and who is not? How can there be effective oversight and even journalistic relevance when we are told that the cost of transparency for our society might be greater vulnerability, thus ultimately undermining the very transparency that makes us uniquely American? How can we maintain the distinction between what is military and what is civilian—possibly the most important task of all, since the scourge of terrorism gleefully ignores that very distinction? Indeed, how can we maintain the distinction between who is a combatant and who is not when everyone is needed, whether in uniform or not, to be part of the forces of vigilance and order? (Meaning that whoever chooses not to be involved in the security of the homeland is also potentially suspect—including those who might dare to criticize the military and intelligence communities.) How do we have a civil society when the presumption is that the order and hierarchies associated with the military are needed for our very survival? And how do we adhere to the Constitution's crucial distinctions between federal and local rights and powers—particularly police power—in an age when purported threats are considered all-encompassing?

When I took all of these questions into account, I realized that thinking strictly of some imposition of booted martial law had made me oblivious to the fact that such an appropriation had already occurred—not martial law, but martial life. We live in such a state characterized by an underlying ambiguity regarding what is military and what is civilian, what is federal and what is local, what is external and what is internal security, what is public and what is private, what is war and what is peace. It did not come into being with 9/11 or the Clinton-era war against al Qaeda or even the second Cold War under Reagan. Instead of being tied to a single incident, martial life is more the product of political accretion than diabolical edict—something akin to too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, too many hormones or chemicals in the food, national obesity. It is not written down somewhere as a specific plot, a step-by-step guide to deposition and seizure; and it is not the intentional product of the accumulated consent of the governed. Even among experts, it is not generally seen or acknowledged. On some level, it is the product of ignorance—and manufactured complexity.

When we think of a coup, the image that comes to mind is a general standing behind a podium, his country's flag as backdrop, explaining that for the sake of the nation the military has been forced to step in, that as soon as law and order have been restored… This is the nightmare but also a figment of the imagination for America; it would and could never work and would never happen. The government—and here I mean the executive branch of the federal government—can't overtly sweep aside the Constitution, and those responsible know it. But an unelected elite that cares for secret law, what I refer to as the executive agents, instead administers a dual system, one that they think is fully justified to deal with extreme contingencies. Their system is designed to comport with the requirement that the XYZ and exceptions to the Constitution not interfere with the ABCs of American law. Yet over the years, the XYZ has changed how we live day-to-day, the ABCs.

Only rarely does America get to meet its executive agents. Powerful deputies like Oliver North and John Poindexter have publicly emerged in scandal and others like Robert Gates or Colin Powell have risen through the ranks to serve in executive agent positions before becoming the principals themselves. Most are wholly invisible civil servants and retired military and intelligence officers, men and women who toil away for years out of the spotlight.

Today and any day, all across the government, these executive agents—one step down, one step away—hold the innocuous titles of counsel, special assistant, principal deputy, assistant administrator, executive secretary, secretarial officer; and they are just one door behind the front office, their power established by direct access—I work for the secretary, I work for the president—and confirmed by being read into the special-access programs, by membership in certain committees, by inclusion on certain lists, all with the mightiest of speed dials.

The presence of such men (and they are almost always men) is noted from time to time, sometimes with a raised eyebrow, even a shiver. To mollify a cantankerous and suspicious citizenry, the government goes on a binge of reassurances: privacy and civil liberties offices constellate officialdom, presidential decrees and directives enforce this or that right of the people, promote transparency and all the other do-goods of government. Enhanced training of police and security monitors and record keepers is undertaken to teach the legions and their auxiliaries not to profile, not to pay attention to political views, race, ethnicity, or religion when considering dangers. The intelligence community promises it is not spying on innocent Americans. The FBI pledges that it does not act without reasonable suspicion and a legal predicate. The military goes out of its way to reassure that it operates always in subordination to civilian authority, that it has no real interest in being in charge.

And here's the thing: I believe them.

The vast majority in government have the best of intentions and perfectly follow all of the ABCs of American law and life. Yet they are not part of the Program. The Program is the overseer of this world between the lines, an entity and group, but neither conspiracy nor secret puppet master. To conceive of what the Program is, think Wall Street. It is a place, but it is also allusively the entirety of interests. It is made up of the equivalent of banks and financial institutions—departments and agencies of government—but it is not ruled by one man or even one committee, yet it acts in unison and with united purpose according to written and unwritten rules. That is the Program.

The Program oversees the chronic state of preparation for the national XYZ, a safeguard and mirrored system where command is not held by an elected official, nor a general, nor a public figure of the president's Cabinet, but instead a now-permanent and between-the-lines governing continuum—that is, above and beyond the elected. There are actual secret plans, and there are men and women charged with the task of carrying them out, a uniquely American Coup, carefully constructed to avoid the stain of military rule.

This is a regime change justified—as undemocratic regime changes usually are—on the basis of national security and necessity, and those in favor of it make sense if you put aside the fundamental basis of American freedom. For example, on some level national and standardized responses and communications protocols during conditions of emergency and survival are the most practical and neutral of measures: it would be pretty ridiculous if an out-of-town firefighting crew arrived to save your house only to find that the hydrant didn't fit their size hose. But "local" is also not just some cookie-cutter term vacated by national homogenization. "Local" is first and foremost the very project of federalism. The term "martial law" has such an ominous ring to it precisely because this is America, a country founded upon notions of civil government, of civil liberties and individual rights. So then "martial life" also has to comply with the American design and Constitution, guaranteeing all of those rights.

There is no American image more powerful than the constitutional defender, whether suspendered and stentorian with well-thumbed little book in hand, or bandana-and-camouflage-clad with gun rack and DON'T TREAD ON ME bumper sticker. There is also likely no greater political expletive in America than "unconstitutional." Every president, every Cabinet and sub-Cabinet member, every member of Congress, every judge, every state official, every officer of the law, every sheriff, every commissioned and noncommissioned officer of the United States of America swears allegiance to the Constitution: to preserve, defend, and uphold it. And though amended a number of times and itself a living document, the Constitution embodies an undeniable set of ideals, with literal (if not sometimes outmoded and conflicting) rules cherished for their ability to protect immutable rights and constrain government power.

While the government swears and pursues constitutional adherence, the Program and its executive agents care for the nation. After five decades and many trials, the Program is steeped in lessons learned, the most essential of which is the peculiar paradox of its own existence and survival: the nation will survive, constitutional government will persist, no matter what, even if that means that an unconstitutional, extralegal system must be kept apart, and often hidden, from the nation's lawmakers and the people, a system that itself alters the very laws of the nation. The Program can't be allowed to alarm or activate a freedom- and Constitution-loving citizenry by openly taking away rights or codifying something as nightmarish as martial law, yet it needs at the same time to shepherd the very citizenry it protects into a state of voluntary thralldom and permanent duty so that the citizenry will accept living in more pleasing equivalents.

It is for now an exaggeration to say that we have destroyed the country in order to save it, and it is way too simplistic to merely argue that if we spent less—or more—that security would be within reach and the executive agents would be out of a job. Similarly, the issue is not simply the enemy or the nature of warfare; the state of martial life is in some ways postenemy and postwar, requiring neither for its sustainment; the blurring of borders, the loss of true distinctions between military and civilian, define a very tangible state of being that, because it is based on uninterrupted fear, is uninterrupted regardless of actual threat.

The very real predicament—and the danger—of a nation permanently at war is not just that there is no room for anything else, that there is nothing else of priority, but also that a nation constantly at war is just that, one perpetually awaiting and thus preparing for the next battle.

Perhaps the only bright spot is that the obsession with and need for continuity make the executive agents fearful citizens as well, and though they are searching always for a promising and functional model, they are also uneasy with the unchanging state of being and the constancy of war. It is that personal and family vulnerability that is the key to change: if all of society is vulnerable, if America is an undifferentiated battlefield, if there is no safety even for their own, given all of their efforts, perhaps a different paradigm of safety will emerge. If we can rebalance military and civilian with a new distinction between the two, then we can also start to make a stab at weakening terrorism while strengthening the nation.

This book is the story of how we arrived at this moment, and of the system that maintains this dangerous status quo. It focuses on several events in recent years that have acted as X-rays, revealing the internal organs hidden by the corpulent flesh of federal bureaucracy and pronouncement. That hidden system is populated by many good people who care deeply about America, but in the course of their work they have changed what that "America" actually means. In the end, theirs is not the America spelled out by the Constitution. Their America is not rooted in the fundamentals of democracy and freedom. And while their America may protect its infrastructure and workings, the disregard for the lives and aspirations of the people contributes to the corrosion of its soul.


Between the Lines

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.


The sealed outer envelope identifies the sender: the Executive Office of the President. The name of the addressee—a Cabinet officer, an agency head, or one of their deputies—along with a unique number in the top right-hand corner, augmented by an unclassified short title of the contents, is on the bottom right. A second opaque envelope inside has a prominent security classification stamped on top and bottom, front and back, and the notation: "TO BE OPENED BY THE _____ [designated official]." Inside the double-sealed wrapping is a government Standard Form (SF) cover sheet: SF 706 for Top Secret and SF 712 for Sensitive Compartmented Information, clipped to the enclosures. If the contents are associated with an even more secret Special Access Program, or SAP, as it's called in the supersecret world, a specially colored and printed card stock is used.

Scores of such envelopes are scattered throughout the federal government, from the Pentagon to the Environmental Protection Agency, locked away in briefcases, in personal safes and office vaults, with duplicates located in bunkers and emergency relocation sites. The master index is cataloged at the office of the White House Counsel and at its subordinate Program Coordination Division.1 Every first Monday of the month, the sets of envelopes are inspected and inventoried. Once a year, the entire contents are reviewed and authenticated, any new, expired, or modified ones replaced.

The most sensitive correspondence is made up of one-of-a-kind letters written to the vice president, Cabinet members, agency heads, and even some private citizens—"Emergency Designees"—each document (affixed with the president's signature and seal) expressing the president's wishes and assigning the bearer some specific delegation of responsibility under circumstances of national calamity.

A level down on the hierarchy, the remaining envelopes contain Presidential Emergency Action Documents (or PEADs), similar yet more broadly written delegations and orders to government agencies and military commands. They include standby legal authorities and not-yet-issued executive orders prewritten to guide the nation during an emergency.2 One step below the PEADs in sensitivity are emergency action packages (EAPs), and one step below the EAPs are major emergency actions (MEAs)—both commonly called "emergency actions"—each in turn subject to wider and wider circulation but still as tightly controlled.3 All of these, too, are collected and processed at the Program Coordination Division. Regardless of acronym, none of these instructions are meant for either public consumption or legislative affirmation and codification.

They do, however, presumably have the public in mind: what is formally known as "emergency action" was first introduced during the Truman administration in 1952,4 but what is the antecedent of today's Program was really created by President Eisenhower, the first president to grapple with the real possibility of rapid global annihilation. The Program was never one place or one person, one administration or one party, or one side of the political spectrum.


On Sale
Sep 10, 2013
Page Count
368 pages

William M. Arkin

About the Author

William M. Arkin is an American political commentator, best-selling author, journalist, activist, blogger, and former United States Army soldier. He has previously served as a military affairs analyst for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. He is the author of several works of non-fiction including  Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs and Operations in the 9/11 World and American Coup: How a Terrified Government Is Destroying the Constitution.

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