- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2001

In the first frenetic hours after President Reagan was shot 20 years ago, administration officials scurried to find the nuclear "football" containing top-secret missile-launch codes and ordered the Strategic Air Command to go on heightened alert, according to newly released transcripts.
As the president lay unconscious on an operating table, Secretary of State Alexander Haig took charge of a meeting of Reagan Cabinet members in the White House Situation Room. There, he declared: "The helm is right here and that means in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here."
Minutes later, Mr. Haig rushed to the lectern of the press briefing room after watching a spokesman, asked who was running the government, respond: "I cannot answer that question at this time."
"He's just turning this into a [expletive] disaster," Mr. Haig told his Cabinet colleagues, dashing up the stairs to take over the podium and make his famous statement: "I am in control here."
The new transcript of the chaotic early moments in the White House after the shooting March 30, 1981, comes from former National Security Adviser Richard V. Allen, who placed a tape recorder in full view of others on the Situation Room's conference table.
"I decided that we had to have this record and now it's 20 years later and it's time to tell that story," Mr. Allen said yesterday in an interview with NBC's "Today" show.
Mr. Haig's office in Washington said he was too busy to comment.
The transcript, published in the April edition of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, paints a picture of testy exchanges as a domineering Haig barked out orders while taking control of the meeting and the government.
At one point, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger says that "until the vice president gets here, the command authority is what I have " breaking off in midsentence.
A laughing Mr. Haig tells him: "You'd better read the Constitution."
In his appearance in the briefing room, Mr. Haig said: "Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state, in that order."
Actually, ahead of the secretary of state in the line of succession are the speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts in 1981 and the president pro tem of the Senate at that time, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
In the article, Mr. Allen writes that until the secretary of state appeared in the White House press briefing room, "Haig 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."
At the time of the shooting, Vice President George Bush was flying over Texas aboard an Air Force jet. Mr. Allen writes that he "vividly remembers the image of Haig, in a trench coat, shouting over a bad connection, 'George, it's Al … turn around … turn around.' "
The transcript also details the myriad matters Cabinet members weighed as Mr. Reagan underwent surgery for a gunshot wound. John W. Hinckley Jr., lying in wait outside the Washington Hilton for Mr. Reagan to return from a speech, fired six shots, missing the president altogether. But one bullet bounced off his armored limousine and struck him in the chest, penetrating his left lung.
Unsure if Hinckley had acted alone and in an era of Cold War tension the Cabinet's first concern was being prepared to respond to a potential Soviet threat.
"Do we have a football here? Do we?" Mr. Haig asked behind the electronically locked doors of the Situation Room in the White House basement, guarded by Secret Service agents.
Told that there was a "football" a briefcase with the top-secret nuclear missile launch codes that travels at all times with the president "in the closet … at the military aide's office," Mr. Haig said: "Get the football over here."
Mr. Weinberger then referred to the Strategic Air Command, the nation's global nuclear strike force, in suggesting that the armed forces "go on alert or be ready to go on alert."
"SAC went on alert with [John F.] Kennedy's assassination," he said.
"What kind of alert, Cap?" Mr. Haig asked.
"It's a standby alert … just a standby alert."
In his briefing appearance minutes later, Mr. Haig would say erroneously "There are absolutely no alert measures at this time that we're contemplating."
In fact, Mr. Weinberger already had told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Military Command Center to go to a "standby condition under which they can move to a much higher degree very quickly… . There will be no publicity about it."
When Mr. Haig returned from the briefing room, Mr. Weinberger made his displeasure known.
"I think we could have done a little better if we had concentrated on a specific statement to be handed out. When you're up there with questions, why then it's not anything you can control," Mr. Weinberger said.
Retorted Mr. Haig: "I said up there, Cap … I'm not a liar. I said there had been no increased alert."
"We have changed the condition …," Mr. Weinberger said. "I didn't know you were going up there."
Later, Mr. Weinberger told the group which included Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, whose agency oversees the Secret Service, White House staff member David Gergen, Attorney General William French Smith and Adm. Daniel Murphy, the vice president's chief of staff that SAC bases had been alerted.
"We have the crews who are normally on alert 24 hours a day move from the base to their planes," he said.
The group was concerned about a nearby Soviet submarine, but the transcript is redacted and says only that it was "about two minutes closer than normal." At one point Mr. Weinberger says it is "not [close] enough to worry about."
The group also discussed whether to deploy the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP), a specially equipped Boeing 747.
It was at that point that Mr. Weinberger questioned who had authority to as Mr. Haig put it "order the NEACP bird up in the air" and the secretary of state said: "You'd better read the Constitution."

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