- Historic Sites
Mr. Smith Goes Underground
The strangest of all Cold War relics also offers a clue to why we won it
September 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 5
“Stability was a big thing,” Bugas explains. In addition to the mountains’ protective shelter, the Greenbrier Valley offered a patriotic rural citizenry who took their security clearances seriously. People were “so happy and prideful that they could do something for their government,” says Bugas, who compares the project to “going to the moon.” He makes a visitor recall the Cold War West Virginians in Homer Hickam’s memoir Rocket Boys, seeking to glimpse Sputnik flying overhead. “President Eisenhower would never allow such a thing,” said the author’s true-believing father.
For 30 years the facility’s managers “didn’t have that many probes or inquiries, strange as that may seem,” says Bugas. People came to the Greenbrier for the scenery and the golf, not “looking for a cooling tower.” But in February 1992, one guest who checked in was looking for anything he could find to confirm the bunker’s secret existence. Ted Gup, an investigative reporter who had long been interested in the government’s emergency relocation plans, had already done stories on the subject for magazines ranging from Mother Jones to Time .
Gup recalls entering the office of the Greenbrier president Ted Kleisner without an appointment and being “incredibly dead straight ahead.” He identified himself as a writer there to do a story for the Washington Post “about a top-secret government installation beneath his hotel.” He told Kleisner that “if he was uncomfortable with my staying there under those circumstances, I would be happy to stay in a hotel down the road. There was nothing subtle or sub rosa about my approach.” Gup recalls the resort president’s seeming shocked but telling him he was welcome to stay at the Greenbrier. However, Kleisner added: “If you write that story, you will never write another story as a reporter. No one will ever believe a word you write again. I give you my word: There is no such facility under this resort.”
Kleisner today recalls the red flag put on Gup’s reservation when the guest asked for a comparatively small and noisy room on the fourth floor of the West Virginia wing, whose view didn’t ordinarily interest a Greenbrier guest. The hotel, Kleisner admits, began keeping track of Gup’s outgoing calls, and the reporter himself remembers a constant, almost comic, surveillance during his stay. “It was a bit like the old Mad magazine ‘Spy vs. Spy.’ I was watching them, and they were watching me, and they were unaware that I was watching them watch me.”
Even now, Gup finds the cover for Project Greek Island, as it was known by 1992, to have been almost “pathetically absurd.” He walked into a room that claimed to be a TVrepair operation, “and inside is a high-speed shredder,” as odd a sight as “all these books about nuclear war” on Fritz Bugas’s office bookshelves. Bugas would dispute Gup’s estimation of the secrecy efforts—and 30 years of nondisclosure might be called on to back him up—but even he has to admit, eight years later, that “Ted’s one bright guy…he didn’t fall off the banana boat.” Once Bugas knew Gup had the goods, he asked his security bosses in Washington if it wasn’t time to “bring him in,” to admit the bunker’s existence and convince the reporter of its importance and efficacy. If they did that, Gup might spike his own story.
“The whole operating scenario will never be divulged.”
Bugas and Kleisner both still believe they could have gotten him to do that. But a representative from the Defense Department’s Criminal Investigative Division vetoed the idea. Kleisner remembers joking, when asked by the debriefer if he had any other ideas for dealing with Gup: “We’ll just snuff him.” The “stone-faced” man from the CID replied: “That is not funny. We don’t do that kind of thing. That is so inappropriate.”
Gup regards himself as “a reporter of some restraint” and “first and foremost a citizen of the country.” He has spiked “more than one or two stories” when he became convinced of their potential for damaging national security. But he maintains that nothing Bugas or Kleisner might have revealed would have gotten him to kill his bunker scoop. His chief sources were not “rogues or renegades or radicals” but people right from within “the Doomsday establishment,” who argued to him that the Greenbrier’s hideaway was a self-perpetuating anachronism; those who ran the facility, they said, feared media disclosure more than they did detection by the USSR. Gup’s sources further insisted that evacuation of Congress could never be accomplished quickly enough once war became truly imminent—not even using the airport built in nearby Lewisburg, West Virginia, in the sixties. On top of everything, members of Congress would simply have declined to go in any case—not when their spouses and children would be left behind at ground zero. (Tip O’Neill, the former House Speaker, told Gup he always found the idea farfetched.)