BACK TO THE BUNKER
By William M. Arkin
Sunday, June 4, 2006; Page B01
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 evacuation points.
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 washing powder).
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
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).