Since the Cold War, the federal government has been preparing for a worst case scenario a nuclear attack, or other strike that could shut down how we run the nation. Those plans are part of programs carried out in secret, and paid for with billions of your tax dollars. The problem: some claim the plans for what is called continuity of government doesn’t work and we have no idea where those billions of dollars are going. Joce Sterman has more.
September 11, 2001, the nation is under attack.
In New York, the Twin Towers are on fire after two airliners fly into the buildings.
In Washington, the Pentagon burns.
And in Sarasota, Florida, President George Bush leaves a classroom of schoolchildren, to begin a series of flights on Air Force One to Barksdale air force base in Louisiana.
President George W. Bush: Freedom itself was attacked this morning.
Then to Offutt air force base in Nebraska before returning to Washington later that afternoon.
Vice President Dick Cheney is whisked to a secure underground location. The government went into survival mode.
Garrett Graff: None of these programs worked in the way we had hope that they were.
Garrett Graff is author of a book called ‘Raven Rock: The Story of the US Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself, While the Rest of Us Die’.
Garrett Graff: The only time we have ever paid real close attention to these plans is after realizing in an emergency they don’t work.
Joce Sterman: Does that highlight the need for more transparency?
Garrett Graff: It highlights both the need for more transparency but also more exercises.
Continuity of government plans have been around since President Truman and the dawn of the atomic age and each administration has added their own touches.
The Greenbrier – the secret bunker built beneath a resort that would have housed members of congress - was built on Eisenhower’s watch.
John F. Kennedy’s press secretary Pierre Salinger organized what was called a doomsday press corps.
Along with additions, Graff discovered big concerns.
Garrett Graff: This is a shadow government we want as a country but we don’t know where they are. We don’t know how many there are. We don’t know what we’re spending on them and we don’t have any real idea on whether it will work.
Graff’s book highlights a DoD report that came to light during JFK’s time in office called cog severely lacking. President Carter’s team called it a worry to all familiar with it.
9/11 exposed major flaws in the system from communications problems on air force one to even the heroic actions of leaders themselves.
Garrett Graff: Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon did exactly the wrong thing for these plans and procedures by going to the crash site, by helping to evacuate the wounded - literally carrying stretchers out of the Pentagon, which was an amazing thing for him to do for a leadership perspective. And exactly the wrong thing to do for him to do from a constitutional perspective. This is the central tension of these plans.
Graff estimates as much as two-billion dollars a year is allocated for continuity plans.
But that’s an estimate at best that he determined by looking at costs piecemeal in black budgets spread across government agencies from the Department of Defense to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Actual spending is even hidden from the Government Accountability Office and the lawmakers who approve it, sparking floor speeches like this one from Representative Peter Defazio in 2007.
Rep. Peter Defazio on House floor: Maybe there’s something there that’s outrageous. The American people need their elected representatives to review this plan for the continuity of government.
John Fortier: We found there were many members who understood it was a problem but didn’t want to consider all of those worst case scenarios.
John Fortier led a commission established after 9/11, to examine the legal and constitutional questions that must be answered, to ensure a continuity of government.
John Fortier: It was in a way like people avoiding writing their will, not wanting to think about their own demise.
Among the commission’s recommendations: a constitutional amendment to speed filling vacant house seats after a massive crisis, and a plan considering people outside D.C. for the line of succession
16 years later, after research, congressional momentum and two official reports, none of the group’s recommendations have been implemented.
John Fortier: We really have not fixed our fundamental problem. The House of Representatives still today - if something big were to happen - many members killed, we would not have a good way for getting that body back into being for two to six months at a time when you really needed that body.
Joce Sterman: What do you think is the biggest consequence of not having this plan ironed out before something happens?
John Fortier: I think the biggest problem is chaos.
So formulating a plan, Fortier says - even an imperfect one, is better than none to keep the government going when a crisis occurs. I’m Joce Sterman, for Full Measure.