In the dark, they come in, shielded from public view by a police perimeter and an inner line of uniformed guardians. The target is reserved for the Tier I forces: They’ve practiced hundreds of times, rappelling onto the roof, banging down doors, hop-scotching down corridors, sweeping rooms. When it’s all clear, the scientists are ushered in with their detection gear and their “render safe” machines and tools. The orders are crystal clear: Do everything and anything to get to the nuke before it explodes, take no chances, shoot to kill.

Two weeks ago, while the mainstream media (and Gawker) were guffawing at Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and American paranoids for believing that the military was rehearsing a takeover of the Southwest, a sister scenario was playing out in the obscure Canadian town of Cobourg, 60 miles east of Toronto on the northern shore of Lake Ontario.

What’s more, the Canadian operation featured the specter of the secretive U.S. National Mission Force, a bete noire of the (rightly paranoid) black-helicopter crowd, which was slithering around Canadian soil and practicing what steps it would take if a terrorist nuclear weapon was ever hidden in a city and ticking away. No one, not even the media on the scene, detected a thing.

The local paper—Northumberland Today—covered the drill (obligingly doing so after the exercise was over) and its reporter Pete Fisher even published pictures. Yet our friendly cousins to the north missed what the exercise, called Vital Archer 15, was about. For the Pentagon’s ultra-secretive special mission unit, that made the operation a double success!

Vital Archer isn’t just any old exercise. One has to have a Focal Point clearance and special access to know the details. I’ve seen glimmers for years, but have never been able to quite nail it down. When the name popped up in my Google news alert last Thursday, I contacted the reporter, wondering if it was just a weird coincidence or this was actually the premier classified drill that I’d been chasing after for so long. Were there Americans about, I asked? Pete, a nice enough guy, said he hadn’t seen any. “No big thing,” he said when I urged him to dig further, “It’s over.” He told me in a follow-up email that he “know[s] military officials high up,” and invited me to look at his bestselling book Highway of Heroes: True Patriot Love.

On Friday, I asked Northern Command (NORTHCOM) in Colorado Springs if Vital Archer was the one and the same, and this was the answer they sent me:

“We conducted a routine Vital Archer exercise with the Canadian Armed Forces in late April at various locations in central Ontario including CFB [Canadian Forces Base] Trenton. It also involved multiple government departments and agencies, including Public Safety Canada and U.S. Department of State. The goal of the training was to exercise inter-governmental collaboration, processes and procedures. The most recent exercise like this took place in Goose Bay, Labrador in October 2014. Vital Archer 15 had been in planning for more than a year and was not directly related to any current events. We are not able to share details of the scenario or many of the specifics, except to say that it involved hundreds of participants, most of whom operated from command or operations centers with only a small number of people deployed the field.”

“Routine.” Meaning scheduled, not routine. “The goal of the training” says nothing: The goal was to exercise the most nightmarish scenario one could imagine. A “small number of people deployed [to] the field”? Exactly: Who you gonna call?

For decades I’ve been writing about how the military plans to handle nukes in our midst, first because nuclear terrorism is sexier than hell; and second, because this scenario is one of the very few where military forces come face to face with executive authority and the Constitution. I even wrote a book about the subject of the unique authorities given to the so-called National Mission Force in American Coup. And I’ve been sniffing after Vital Archer since the first exercise of the series was held in 2005 with the stand-up of NORTHCOM, the military homeland defense command that was created after 9/11 to “deter, prevent and defeat threats and aggression aimed at the United States.”

But until recently, I’ve never quite known what Vital Archer was.

Adm. William E. Gortney, the NORTHCOM commander, mentioned the exercise in his testimony before Congress earlier this year, welcoming Special Operations Command North (SOCNORTH) to full operational capability, which he said affirmed its readiness to operate in “Exercise VITAL ARCHER, our Tier 1 counterterrorism exercise.” Digging deeper, I found a new March 2015 Department of Energy report to Congress called Prevent, Counter, and Respond—A Strategic Plan to Reduce Global Nuclear Threats (FY 2016–FY 2020). On page 93 of a 124 report filled with seeming gobbledygook, the Department says that the scientists assigned to the National Mission Force participate in Vital Archer—a “DOD-led OCONUS [outside of the continental United States] render safe exercise ... that approximate[s] the complexity of conducting operations on a nuclear/radiological device overseas.”

So a routine article in a provincial Canadian newspaper serves to unravel one of the government’s most sensitive secrets, including how the United States and its international partners prepare to thwart a terrorist nuclear weapon literally ticking down in the middle of a major North American city.

Hollywood to the extreme? A one-in-a-gazillion possibility? A figment of Dick Cheney’s “one-percent doctrine” fever dreams? I think so. But nuclear weapons weren’t elevated to number one by Cheney and Bush. Loose post-Soviet nukes, Pakistani profligacy, a leaky North Korea, Libya and even South Africa–these were the top concerns of the Clinton administration, and before him, Bush I.

And on 9/11, something did happen: a terrorist group demonstrated its willingness and even desire to kill thousands of innocent civilians. These far-fetched scenarios that were the lifework of virtually unknown organizations—the Joint Special Operations Command was created to some degree predicated on building a competent force to carry out a nuclear crisis-response mission—were suddenly more relevant. The government over-reacted, but their programs weren’t manufactured from nothing. We expect the government to prepare contingency plans, and if there were ever a nuclear weapon secreted in the middle of New York or Washington, however far-fetched, we would want them to do ... well, everything? Anything?

There’s no easy answer. Vital Archer and similar exercises of the extreme assume the failure of diplomacy, of arms control and disarmament, of the prodigious efforts to lock up nuclear materials, of international surveillance and interdiction, a breakdown in physical security, in border control, and in law enforcement. You can imagine the joint press conference by the American president and the Canadian prime minister: Today, at O-dark-thirty, U.S. and Canadian forces, in a joint operation, captured...

And like the killing of Osama bin Laden, it would be hooray for the SEALs and Delta Force and the inevitable Hollywood depiction: the tough political decisions, the who-do-you-call realities of governance, the get-the-fuck-out-of-the-way attitude of secret government. I struggle with the story behind Vital Archer, because what we want is for those commandos to be ready to perform Hollywood magic—and yet in asking them to prepare for the worst, we empower those who seek to maintain the constant state-of-war panic where every contingency-planning possibility is turned into a right now justification. And it is.

Since 9/11, our collective response to a terrorist nuke has been honed to a razor’s edge. Ironically—and I’ll write more about this in coming days—as the scenario has become perceived as more real, the government has created new rules and new secret laws and policies to deal with our natural inclination to simply surrender to military everything and possible martial law should the worst happen. Which is to say that the National Mission Force once was a let-nothing-stand-in-your-way military-led authority existing above the law. But after 9/11, the Justice Department (through the FBI) was put in charge, and our hysterical Cold War contingency plans were brought into compliance with the civilian law. Sort of, maybe; that’s why the hyper secrecy.

Of course, the FBI itself has become so militarized that one wonders whether it makes a difference. As I’ve written before, we avoid the stain of martial law by accepting a state of martial life. The tough position for us as citizens—and for our democracy—is that the best way to avoid the worst case scenario, both tactically at the eleventh hour and in terms of big questions of strategy and policy, is to let the choking fog of secrecy and the extreme emotions of the subject take over. There are a spectrum of nuclear dangers but the big bang in the middle — the one that represents massive failure — occupies inordinate space.

“Not directly related to any current events” NORTHCOM says about the Vital Archer exercise. And yet to me, it screams Jade Helm, that panic-everyone special operations exercise planned for June. Not because the two are connected in any way. But because secret exercises do occur off military bases, and the military—even when it is being candid—still can’t explain enough to calm the public as to what these exercises are for. And in that has been an erosion of trust — a justified one.

What exactly the Army is doing in Jade Helm in June—I’ll get to that later in a post—is highly sensitive and politically controversial. It’s not about Texas per se, and not about takeover at all— just like Vital Archer isn’t about martial law. And yet we imagine the worst because they imagine the worst, and we don’t know enough to say which worst is more important.

Tomorrow: America Loses its Marbles (Part 2).

[Images courtesy of the Department of Defense and]