America’s next president will inherit more than a financial catastrophe when he assumes office. He will also inherit a shadow government — one that is fully staffed by unelected officials, fully operational and ready to take over the running of the country at a moment’s notice.

This so-called shadow government is not a new development. It has been a long time in the making. Yet it has been so shrouded in secrecy, even from those elected to represent the American people in Congress, that it essentially exists and functions contrary to any concept of democratic government. The little that has leaked out merely serves to reinforce concerns that an authoritarian government waits in the wings. All it will take is the right event for such a regime to emerge from the shadows.

It might not even require an actual attack, as President Bush ensured when he stealthily issued National Security Presidential Directive 51 and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 20 in May 2007. Comprising the country’s Continuity of Government (COG) plan, these directives, which do not need congressional approval, provide a skeletal outline of the actions the executive will take in the event of a “national emergency.” In fact, they go so far as to grant the president the power to unilaterally declare a national emergency, which is loosely defined as “any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government functions.”

Thus, a debilitating attack would give unchecked executive, legislative and judicial power to the executive branch and its unelected minions. The country would be subjected to martial law by default, and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights would be suspended. (This adds an ominous note to the disconcerting news that for the first time ever, U.S. military forces, trained in domestic police tactics and crowd control, are being deployed inside the U.S.)

These concerns continued into the 1980s. Under President Ronald Reagan, an elaborate plan was created in which three teams consisting of a cabinet member, an executive chief of staff and military and intelligence officials would practice evacuating and directing a counter nuclear strike against the Soviet Union from a variety of high-tech, mobile command vehicles. If the president and vice president were both killed, one of these teams would take control, with the ranking cabinet official serving as president. Among those Reagan handpicked to advise an inexperienced and potentially incompetent successor in a time of crisis were Congressman Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, then a business executive with G. D. Searle & Co.

This all changed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when it became clear that the assumptions that drove COG planning during the Cold War no longer applied. There would be no warning against a terrorist attack. Thus, instead of relying on part-time bureaucrats and evacuation schematics, the Bush administration permanently appointed executive officials, stationed outside the capital, to run a shadow government.

The plans for the shadow government are more elaborate than many realize. Massive underground bunkers are sprinkled throughout the country for the government elite to escape to in the event of a national emergency. Mount Weather, near Bluemont, Va., is one of a number of such facilities.

What is the bottom line here? We are, for all intents and purposes, one terrorist attack away from having a full-fledged authoritarian state emerge from the shadows, at which time democratic government will be dissolved and the country will be ruled by an unelected bureaucracy. And because so much of this shadow government remains under wraps, there is much we don’t know about it. Yet that does not diminish the threat it poses to democratic government.

The Bush administration, in fact, has refused to reveal the classified details of COG, even to members of Congress. Representative Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a member of the Committee on Homeland Security, requested access to COG plans. Members of Congress are supposedly allowed to view such documents in a secure “bubble room” in the Capitol Building. However, White House staff refused to release the documents. Understandably, DeFazio was livid.

Those who drafted the Constitution never contemplated, nor would they have tolerated, a nonelected, secretive shadow government. All government officials under the U.S. Constitution are accountable to the elected representatives. Otherwise, democratic government, for all intents and purposes, ceases to exist.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org.