Bush confirms order to activate `shadow' government as safety

Plan moves operations to top-secret facilities if Capitol is attacked

March 02, 2002|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - A doomsday scenario has haunted government planners since the dawn of the nuclear age: What would happen if the nation's capital were wiped out by a devastating attack?

Now the threat of terrorism has revived a Cold War nightmare, and federal officials have dusted off plans to deal with the unthinkable. President Bush's decision to activate a "shadow" government is just one of a series of precautions that were ordered after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"This is serious business, and we take it seriously," Bush told reporters yesterday, confirming reports that he has ordered the extraordinary precaution. "Until this country has routed out terrorists wherever they try to hide, we're not safe."

Under a top-secret "Continuity of Operations" plan, as many as 150 top government officials have been dispatched to secret underground facilities outside Washington in three-month shifts to make sure the government would keep operating in the event of a terrorist attack on the capital.

The most visible shadow official has been Vice President Dick Cheney, whose "undisclosed secure locations" have become a standing joke. Since Sept. 11, one member of the Cabinet has always been away from Washington, either in a bunker or under heavy security. The Senate has made plans to move to a hotel if the Capitol is attacked, and the House of Representatives is prepared to regroup at a nearby military base.

Other parts of the government, including the Supreme Court, have also taken steps to maintain operations. Officials declined to provide details and asked that the locations of the emergency facilities and the names of people working at them not be disclosed.

Fragmentary reports of the shadow government's existence first appeared in October in The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and then in U.S. News & World Report, and The Washington Post printed a fuller account in yesterday's editions.

"I don't know if I'd call it a survival plan, but there is a plan that would be implemented, were we to be in jeopardy," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said when asked about Congress' emergency-response plan. "Precautions have been taken and arrangements have been made to move the work of the Congress to another location."

Some of the changes are subtle.

At the Capitol, windows have been coated with Mylar to prevent them from shattering in a blast. The building's public address system has been upgraded in case it is needed to sound an alarm. Some lawmakers have removed their congressional license plates to keep a lower profile.

At the Pentagon, the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff avoid joint appearances in the hope that at least one of them would survive an attack. Secure military command centers have been put on a higher state of readiness.

"You don't want the bad guys to know where you're putting your people, what your plans are," Defense Department spokeswoman Torie Clarke said. "We move people around. I'll leave it at that."

Officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the government was using Cold War facilities but that evacuation plans were being updated. Although the threat from terrorism may seem less lethal than the one posed by the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal, it is in some ways worse. Cold War planners assumed the government would have at least a half-hour's warning of a nuclear attack, but terrorists almost always strike without warning.

"This is very much the plan that would have been put into effect had we received strategic indications that the Soviet Union was preparing to annihilate us," said Stephen Schwartz, publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "It's really kind of macabre and surreal and bizarre."

Some of the Cold War bunkers are relatively well known, including a Pennsylvania facility that was blasted out of a mountain and built in around-the-clock shifts in the early 1950s. According to information Schwartz compiled in 1998 for the Brookings Institution, a Washington public policy organization, it was built to accommodate 3,000 people, with medical and dental facilities, a dining hall, a barbershop and a chapel.

A similar facility in Virginia, completed in 1958, includes private sleeping quarters for top government officials, a crematorium, and a radio and television station.

"It's no secret that the facilities exist. There are houses across the street from some of these places. People see the helicopters come and go," Schwartz said. "We spent billions of dollars on them. We're getting a little bit of value out of them now."

Other Cold War fallout shelters were shut down after the Soviet Union collapsed.

On the day of the terrorist attacks, Bush flew to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, one of dozens of military bases that have special command centers for emergency use. The president also has a fleet of well-equipped airborne command centers at his disposal.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.