WASHINGTON -- In one of the best-kept secrets of the Cold War, the federal government clandestinely built and maintained for more than three decades a $14 million underground bunker in West Virginia for Congress to use in event of a nuclear attack, officials acknowledged yesterday.
The hideaway Capitol was built under the fashionable Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., about 250 miles from Washington, and its location was known only to a relative handful of the nation's highest-ranking officials.
"From 1958 on, the very existence of this facility was a closely guarded secret," Democratic and Republican congressional leaders said in an extraordinary joint statement. "Very few in Congress or the executive branch knew of the program."
Yesterday's disclosure recalled a time when many Americans were building backyard fallout shelters in case of a nuclear attack on the United States by the Soviet Union.
Since the Greenbrier facility could not withstand a direct nuclear blast, the disclosure of its location probably has ended its usefulness as a wartime meeting place for the House and Senate, congressional leaders said.
A similar underground bunker supposedly able to withstand a nuclear attack exists in the nearby Virginia mountains for use by the president in case of war. Its exact location has not been disclosed.
The unusual joint statement confirming the existence of the Greenbrier bunker came after the first public reports of it appeared in yesterday's Washington Times. Another story on the bunker appears in tomorrow's editions of the Washington Post, which had not yet been distributed.
Both newspapers said that they proceeded with publication of the articles despite pleas from House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, a Washington Democrat, to refrain from doing so.
Editors at the newspapers said that Mr. Foley made his appeal on two counts: that the existence of the costly and secret bunker might reflect poorly on the already-scandal-plagued House and that national security might be jeopardized.
The Washington Times said that it also believed that Mr. Foley feared further criticism from fellow members of Congress, most of whom were unaware of the bunker.
Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said that after considering the request, the newspaper concluded that "this was [an] historically significant and interesting story, and its publication would not pose a great danger to national security or human life."
He said that the usefulness of the bunker already was much in doubt, citing, among other things, changes in the world and in underlying assumptions of a 1950s-style attack scenario.
Among those assumptions was the likelihood of a relatively long warning period before a nuclear strike -- enough time to get government leaders to the site.
In their joint statement condemning the articles and confirming the bunker, congressional leaders said: "The key vulnerability of the program was that it relied upon a fixed facility which was not capable of withstanding a direct nuclear blast," the statement said.
"It was always clear that if the secret of the facility's location were to be compromised, the effectiveness and security of the program would be jeopardized.
"The joint bipartisan leadership of Congress sought in several meetings with Washington Post editors to persuade the Post not to reveal the location of the facility," they said. "We regret their decision to do so."
President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed that Congress arrange forthe secret relocation center in case of nuclear attack when Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States were near their postwar peak.
The Department of Defense selected the Greenbrier site and arranged for construction of the costly underground facility at the remote Allegheny mountain location not far from Roanoke, Va.
The Greenbrier bunker -- almost like a small underground city -- has living quarters and work space for 800 persons as well as meeting halls for the House and Senate.