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.
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 government functions.
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 respond."
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 upgrades.
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 planning.
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 authority."
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 September 2000.
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.