The exercises were usually scheduled during a congressional recess, so that Cheney would miss as little work on Capitol Hill as possible. Although Cheney, Rumsfeld, and one other team leader took part in each exercise, the Cabinet members changed depending on who was available at a particular time. (Once, Attorney General Ed Meese participated in an exercise that departed from Andrews in the pre-dawn hours of June 18, 1986—the day after Chief Justice Warren Burger resigned. One official remembers looking at Meese and thinking, "First a Supreme Court resignation, and now America's in a nuclear war. You're having a bad day.")
In addition to the designated White House chief of staff and his President, each team included representatives from the Departments of State and Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency, and also from various domestic-policy agencies. The idea was to practice running the entire federal government with a skeletal crew during a nuclear war. At one point there was talk of bringing in the governors of Virginia and Maryland and the mayor of the District of Columbia, but the idea was discarded because they didn't have the necessary security clearance.
The exercises were designed to be stressful. Participants gathered in haste, moved and worked in the early-morning hours, lived in Army-base conditions, and dined on early, particularly unappetizing versions of the military's dry, mass-produced MREs (meals ready to eat). An entire exercise lasted close to two weeks, but each team took part for only three or four days. One team would leave Washington, run through its drills, and then—as if it were on the verge of being "nuked"—hand off to the next team.
The plans were carried out with elaborate deception, designed to prevent Soviet reconnaissance satellites from detecting where in the United States the teams were going. Thus the teams were sent out in the middle of the night, and changed locations from one exercise to the next. Decoy convoys were sometimes dispatched along with the genuine convoys carrying the communications gear. The underlying logic was that the Soviets could not possibly target all the makeshift locations around the United States where the Reagan teams might operate.
The capstone to all these efforts to stay mobile was a special airplane, the National Emergency Airborne Command Post, a modified Boeing 747 based at Andrews and specially outfitted with a conference room and advanced communications gear. In it a President could remain in the air and run the country during a nuclear showdown. In one exercise a team of officials stayed aloft in this plane for three days straight, cruising up and down the coasts and back and forth across the country, refueling in the air.
When George H.W. Bush was elected President, in 1988, members of the secret Reagan program rejoiced; having been closely involved with the effort from the start, Bush wouldn't need to be initiated into its intricacies and probably wouldn't re-evaluate it. In fact, despite dramatically improved relations with Moscow, Bush did continue the exercises, with some minor modifications. Cheney was appointed Secretary of Defense and dropped out as a team leader.