President Bush has
dispatched a shadow government of about 100 senior civilian managers to
live and work secretly outside Washington, activating for the first
time long-standing plans to ensure survival of federal rule after
catastrophic attack on the nation's capital.
Execution of the classified "Continuity of Operations
Plan" resulted not from the Cold War threat of intercontinental
missiles, the scenario rehearsed for decades, but from heightened fears
that the al Qaeda terrorist network might somehow obtain a portable
nuclear weapon, according to three officials with firsthand knowledge.
U.S. intelligence has no specific knowledge of such a weapon, they
said, but the risk is thought great enough to justify the shadow
government's disruption and expense.
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Deployed "on the fly"
in the first hours of turmoil on Sept. 11, one participant said, the
shadow government has evolved into an indefinite precaution. For that
reason, the high-ranking officials representing their departments have
begun rotating in and out of the assignment at one of two fortified
locations along the East Coast. Rotation is among several changes made
in late October or early November, sources said, to the standing
directive Bush inherited from a line of presidents reaching back to
Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Officials who are activated for what some of them call
"bunker duty" live and work underground 24 hours a day, away from their
families. As it settles in for the long haul, the shadow government has
sent home most of the first wave of deployed personnel, replacing them
most commonly at 90-day intervals.
The civilian cadre present in the bunkers usually
numbers 70 to 150, and "fluctuates based on intelligence" about
terrorist threats, according to a senior official involved in managing
the program. It draws from every Cabinet department and some
independent agencies. Its first mission, in the event of a disabling
blow to Washington, would be to prevent collapse of essential
Assuming command of regional federal offices, officials
said, the underground government would try to contain disruptions of
the nation's food and water supplies, transportation links, energy and
telecommunications networks, public health and civil order. Later it
would begin to reconstitute the government.
Known internally as the COG, for "continuity of
government," the administration-in-waiting is an unannounced complement
to the acknowledged absence of Vice President Cheney from Washington
for much of the pastfive months. Cheney's survival ensures
constitutional succession, one official said, but "he can't run the
country by himself." With a core group of federal managers alongside
him, Cheney -- or President Bush, if available -- has the means to give
effect to his orders.
While the damage of other terrorist weapons is
potentially horrific, officials said, only an atomic device could
threaten the nation's fundamental capacity to govern itself. Without an
invulnerable backup command structure outside Washington, one official
said, a nuclear detonation in the capital "would be 'game over.' "
"We take this issue extraordinarily seriously, and are
committed to doing as thorough a job as possible to ensure the ongoing
operations of the federal government," said Joseph W. Hagin, White
House deputy chief of staff, who declined to discuss details. "In the
case of the use of a weapon of mass destruction, the federal government
would be able to do its job and continue to provide key services and
The Washington Post agreed to a White House request not
to name any of those deployed or identify the two principal locations
of the shadow government.
Only the executive branch is represented in the
full-time shadow administration. The other branches of constitutional
government, Congress and the judiciary, have separate continuity plans
but do not maintain a 24-hour presence in fortified facilities.
The military chain of command has long maintained
redundant centers of communication and control, hardened against
thermonuclear blast and operating around the clock. The headquarters of
U.S. Space Command, for example, is burrowed into Cheyenne Mountain
near Colorado Springs, Colo., and the U.S. Strategic Command staffs a
comparable facility under Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
Civilian departments have had parallel
continuity-of-government plans since the dawn of the nuclear age. But
they never operated routinely, seldom exercised, and were permitted to
atrophy with the end of the Cold War. Sept. 11 marked the first time,
according to Bush administration officials, that the government
activated such a plan.
Within hours of the synchronized attacks on the
Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Military District of Washington
helicopters lifted off with the first wave of evacuated officials.
Witnesses near one of the two evacuation sites reported
an influx of single- and twin-rotor transport helicopters, escorted by
F-16 fighters, and followed not long afterward by government buses.
According to officials with first-hand knowledge, the
Bush administration conceived the move that morning as a temporary
precaution, likely to last only days. But further assessment of
terrorist risks persuaded the White House to remake the program as a
permanent feature of "the new reality, based on what the threat looks
like," a senior decisionmaker said.
Few Cabinet-rank principals or their immediate deputies
left Washington on Sept. 11, and none remained at the bunkers. Those
who form the backup government come generally from the top career
ranks, from GS-14 and GS-15 to members of the Senior Executive Service.
The White House is represented by a "senior-level presence," one
official said, but well below such Cabinet-ranked advisers as Chief of
Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Many departments, including Justice and Treasury, have
completed plans to delegate statutory powers to officials who would not
normally exercise them. Others do not need to make such legal
transfers, or are holding them in reserve.
Deployed civilians are not permitted to take their
families, and under penalty of prosecution they may not tell anyone
where they are going or why. "They're on a 'business trip,' that's
all," said one official involved in the effort.
The two sites of the shadow government make use of
local geological features to render them highly secure. They are well
stocked with food, water, medicine and other consumable supplies, and
are capable of generating their own power.
But with their first significant operational use, the
facilities are showing their age. Top managers arrived at one of them
to find computers "several generations" behind those now in use,
incapable of connecting to current government databases. There were far
too few phone lines. Not many work areas had secure audio and video
links to the rest of government. Officials said Card, who runs the
program from the White House, has been obliged to order substantial
The modern era of continuity planning began under President Ronald Reagan.
On Sept. 16, 1985, Reagan signed National Security
Decision Directive 188, "Government Coordination for National Security
Emergency Preparedness," which assigned responsibility for continuity
planning to an interagency panel from Defense, Treasury, Justice and
the Office of Management and Budget. He signed additional directives,
including Executive Order 12472, for more detailed aspects of the
In Executive Order 12656, signed Nov. 18, 1988, Reagan
ordered every Cabinet department to define in detail the "defense and
civilian needs" that would be "essential to our national survival" in
case of a nuclear attack on Washington. Included among them were legal
instruments for "succession to office and emergency delegation of
The military services put these directives in place
long before their civilian counterparts. The Air Force, for example,
relies on Air Force Instruction 10-208, revised most recently in
Civilian agencies gradually developed contingency plans
in comparable detail. The Agriculture Department, for example, has
plans to ensure continued farm production, food processing, storage and
distribution; emergency provision of seed, feed, water, fertilizer and
equipment to farmers; and use of Commodity Credit Corp. inventories of
food and fiber resources.
What was missing, until Sept. 11, was an invulnerable
group of managers with the expertise and resources to administer these
programs in a national emergency.
Last Oct. 8, the day after bombing began in
Afghanistan, Bush created the Office of Homeland Security with
Executive Order 13228. Among the responsibilities he gave its first
director, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, was to "review plans
and preparations for ensuring the continuity of the Federal Government
in the event of a terrorist attack that threatens the safety and
security of the United States Government or its leadership."
Staff researcher Mary Lou White contributed to this report.