By William M. Arkin
The Washington Post
June 4, 2006
On Monday, June 19, about 4,000 government workers representing more
than 50 federal agencies from the State Department to the Commodity
Futures Trading Commission will say goodbye to their families and set
off for dozens of classified emergency facilities stretching from the
Maryland and Virginia suburbs to the foothills of the Alleghenies.
They will take to the bunkers in an "evacuation" that my sources
describe as the largest "continuity of government" exercise ever
conducted, a drill intended to prepare the U.S. government for an
event even more catastrophic than the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The exercise is the latest manifestation of an obsession with
government survival that has been a hallmark of the Bush
administration since 9/11, a focus of enormous and often absurd time,
money and effort that has come to echo the worst follies of the Cold
War. The vast secret operation has updated the duck-and-cover
scenarios of the 1950s with state-of-the-art technology -- alerts and
updates delivered by pager and PDA, wireless priority service, video
teleconferencing, remote backups -- to ensure that "essential"
government functions continue undisrupted should a terrorist's nuclear
bomb go off in downtown Washington.
But for all the BlackBerry culture, the outcome is still old-fashioned
black and white: We've spent hundreds of millions of dollars on
alternate facilities, data warehouses and communications, yet no one
can really foretell what would happen to the leadership and
functioning of the federal government in a catastrophe.
After 9/11, The Washington Post reported that President Bush had set
up a shadow government of about 100 senior civilian managers to live
and work outside Washington on a rotating basis to ensure the
continuity of national security. Since then, a program once focused on
presidential succession and civilian control of U.S. nuclear weapons
has been expanded to encompass the entire government. From the
Department of Education to the Small Business Administration to the
National Archives, every department and agency is now required to plan
for continuity outside Washington.
Yet according to scores of documents I've obtained and interviews with
half a dozen sources, there's no greater confidence today that
essential services would be maintained in a disaster. And no one
really knows how an evacuation would even be physically possible.
Moreover, since 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the definition of what
constitutes an "essential" government function has been expanded so
ridiculously beyond core national security functions -- do we really
need patent and trademark processing in the middle of a nuclear
holocaust? -- that the term has become meaningless. The intent of the
government effort may be laudable, even necessary, but a
hyper-centralized approach based on the Cold War model of evacuations
and bunkering makes it practically worthless.
That the continuity program is so poorly conceived, and poorly run,
should come as no surprise. That's because the same Federal Emergency
Management Agency that failed New Orleans after Katrina, an agency
that a Senate investigating committee has pronounced "in shambles and
beyond repair," is in charge of this enormous effort to plan for the
U.S. government's survival.
Continuity programs began in the early 1950s, when the threat of
nuclear war moved the administration of President Harry S. Truman to
begin planning for emergency government functions and civil defense.
Evacuation bunkers were built, and an incredibly complex and secretive
shadow government program was created.
At its height, the grand era of continuity boasted the fully
operational Mount Weather, a civilian bunker built along the crest of
Virginia's Blue Ridge, to which most agency heads would evacuate; the
Greenbrier hotel complex and bunker in West Virginia, where Congress
would shelter; and Raven Rock, or Site R, a national security bunker
bored into granite along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border near Camp
David, where the Joint Chiefs of Staff would command a protracted
nuclear war. Special communications networks were built, and
evacuation and succession procedures were practiced continually.
When the Soviet Union crumbled, the program became a Cold War
curiosity: Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney ordered Raven Rock into
caretaker status in 1991. The Greenbrier bunker was shuttered and a
30-year-old special access program was declassified three years later.
Then came the terrorist attacks of the mid-1990s and the looming Y2K
rollover, and suddenly continuity wasn't only for nuclear war anymore.
On Oct. 21, 1998, President Bill Clinton signed Presidential Decision
Directive 67, "Enduring Constitutional Government and Continuity of
Government Operations." No longer would only the very few elite
leaders responsible for national security be covered. Instead, every
single government department and agency was directed to see to it that
they could resume critical functions within 12 hours of a warning, and
keep their operations running at emergency facilities for up to 30
days. FEMA was put in charge of this broad new program.
On 9/11, the program was put to the test -- and failed. Not on the
national security side: Vice President Cheney and others in the
national security leadership were smoothly whisked away from the
capital following procedures overseen by the Pentagon and the White
House Military Office. But like the mass of Washingtonians, officials
from other agencies found themselves virtually on their own, unsure of
where to go or what to do, or whom to contact for the answers.
In the aftermath, the federal government was told to reinvigorate its
continuity efforts. Bush approved lines of succession for civil
agencies. Cabinet departments and agencies were assigned specific
emergency responsibilities. FEMA issued new preparedness guidelines
and oversaw training. A National Capital Region continuity working
group established in 1999, comprising six White House groups, 15
departments and 61 agencies, met to coordinate.
But all the frenetic activity did not produce a government prepared
for the worst. A year after 9/11, and almost three years after the
deadline set in Clinton's 1998 directive, the Government Accounting
Office evaluated 38 agencies and found that not one had addressed all
the issues it had been ordered to. A 2004 GAO audit of 34 government
continuity-of-operations plans found total confusion on the question
of essential functions. One unnamed organization listed 399 such
functions. A department included providing "speeches and articles for
the Secretary and Deputy Secretary" among its essential duties, while
neglecting many of its central programs.
The confusion and absurdity have continued, according to documents
I've collected over the past few years. In June 2004, FEMA told
federal agencies that essential services in a catastrophe would
include not only such obvious ones as electric power generation and
disaster relief but also patent and trademark processing, student aid
and passport processing. A month earlier, FEMA had told states and
local communities that library services should be counted as essential
along with fire protection and law enforcement.
None of this can be heartening to Americans who want to believe that
in a crisis, their government can distinguish between what is truly
essential and what isn't -- and provide it.
Just two years ago, an exercise called Forward Challenge '04 pointed
up the danger of making everyone and everything essential: Barely an
hour after agencies were due to arrive at their relocation sites, the
Office of Management and Budget asked the reconstituted government to
identify emergency funding requirements.
As one after-action report for the exercise later put it in a classic
case of understatement: "It was not clear . . . whether this would be
a realistic request at that stage of an emergency."
This year's exercise, Forward Challenge '06, will be the third major
interagency continuity exercise since 9/11. Larger than Forward
Challenge '04 and the Pinnacle exercise held last year, it requires 31
departments and agencies (including FEMA) to relocate. Fifty to 60 are
expected to take part.
According to government sources, the exercise will test the newly
created continuity of government alert conditions -- called COGCONs --
that emulate the DEFCONs of the national security community. Forward
Challenge will begin with a series of alerts via BlackBerry and pager
to key officials. It will test COGCON 1, the highest level of
preparedness, in which each department and agency is required to have
at least one person in its chain of command and sufficient staffing at
alternate operating facilities to perform essential functions.
Though key White House officials and military leadership would be
relocated via the Pentagon's Joint Emergency Evacuation Program
(JEEP), the civilians are on their own to make it to their designated
But fear not: Each organization's COOP, or continuity of operations
plan, details the best routes to the emergency locations. The plans
even spell out what evacuees should take with them (recommended items:
a combination lock, a flashlight, two towels and a small box of
Can such an exercise, announced well in advance, hope to re-create any
of the tensions and fears of a real crisis? How do you simulate the
experience of driving through blazing, radiated, panic-stricken
streets to emergency bunker sites miles away?
As the Energy Department stated in its review of Forward Challenge
'04, "a method needs to be devised to realistically test the ability
of . . . federal offices to relocate to their COOP sites using a
scenario that simulates . . . the monumental challenges that would be
involved in evacuating the city."
With its new plans and procedures, Washington may think it has thought
of everything to save itself. Forward Challenge will no doubt be
deemed a success, and officials will pronounce the
continuity-of-government project sound. There will be lessons to be
learned that will justify more millions of dollars and more work in
the infinite effort to guarantee order out of chaos.
But the main defect -- a bunker mentality that considers too many
people and too many jobs "essential" -- will remain unchallenged.
William M. Arkin writes the Early Warning blog for washingtonpost.com
and is the author of "Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans,
Programs and Operations in the 9/11 World" (Steerforth Press).
=A9 2006 The Washington Post Company
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