How to Pack for the Bunker
And other government contingency plans
By William M. Arkin
William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for
Opinion. E-mail: warkin@...
August 1, 2004
SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. — The country may not be fully prepared for another
terrorist attack, but one thing, at least, has been settled: Government employees
assigned to take up positions at "Site R," the Raven Rock underground bunker
that housed Vice President Dick Cheney after Sept. 11, have been told what to
Among the reams of documents produced by the federal government in the name
of contingency planning, one is devoted entirely to the details of bunker life.
According to the Relocation Procedures and Support Handbook, those heading
for Site R near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border should leave their pagers,
radios, knives and alcohol at home.
What should they bring? "All personnel designated to relocate," the handbook
advises, "are encouraged to bring two complete changes of clothing," as well
as a combination lock, flashlight, two towels and a "small box of washing
powder." The government will provide lodging, but it draws the line at detergent.
Nor does the installation accommodate those who like a late dinner: Its dining
facility, known as "Granite Cove," closes at 5 p.m.
Occupants should not expect luxury — or even private rooms. In the event of
an emergency, officials expect Site R to be so crowded that the dormitory's
three-tiered bunk beds will be assigned in 12-hour shifts. One person will get
the bed from, say, 10 p.m. to 10 a.m., and another worker will have it the other
12 hours of the day.
The U.S. government first instituted a formalized system of "continuity of
operations" planning during the Cold War in an effort to ensure that key
agencies and departments would be able to continue functioning in the event of a
nuclear war. After the demise of the Soviet Union, such planning languished until
October 1998, when President Clinton issued a top-secret order directing all
levels of government to develop plans that would clearly delineate a chain of
command as well as identify alternative facilities and methods of
Emergency preparations remained a high priority in the lead-up to the year
2000, as the government braced itself for possible Y2K computer problems. But
when Jan. 1, 2000, came and went without catastrophe, bureaucrats returned to
their slumber. By 2001, when President Bush took office, the government was
still spending about $182 million annually on "continuity" programs, but most of
that was spent by the Pentagon. Planning in the rest of government was very
much on the back burner.
All that changed after Sept. 11, when the federal government found its
emergency response hampered by inadequate planning and communications — just the
things Clinton had set out to fix. Today, contingency planning is once again a
high priority. The current budget funds continuity programs to the tune of $500
million, and last year a one-time infusion of $652 million in supplemental
funding was added to what was originally budgeted.
But has the added spending made us safer?
A scathing General Accounting Office report issued last February warned that
the continuity program was a shambles. In its report, titled "Continuity of
Operations: Improved Planning Needed to Ensure Delivery of Essential Government
Services," the agency found that as of Oct. 1, 2002, almost four years after
Clinton launched his initiative and a year after Sept. 11, three agencies
(unidentified in the report) had still not drawn up continuity plans. Of 15 major
civilian government departments and agencies, not one had a plan that complied
with all of the guidelines promulgated by the Federal Emergency Management
Agency. One agency had identified only three "essential functions" needing to be
addressed in planning, whereas others had identified scores of such functions,
including ones the GAO said "appeared to be of secondary importance." At the
same time, the report noted, agencies failed to identify as crucial "programs
that had been previously defined as 'high impact.' " One plan included as an
essential function providing "speeches and articles for the secretary and
In the end, emergency planning suffers from the same disease that plagues a
lot of government bureaucracies: an inability to identify what's most important
and give it priority. When the government issued its guidelines for
contingency plans, it treated the National Science Foundation as if it were just as
important as the Department of Energy. This kind of thinking mirrors a much
larger problem with homeland security, which fails in many aspects of planning to
distinguish between New York City and Vermont and spends princely sums on
farfetched and exotic threats at the expense of mundane precautions for much more
In June, the Department of Homeland Security issued yet another set of
guidelines, this one with the compelling title "Federal Preparedness Circular 65."
At first glance, it seems like the problems identified by the GAO will finally
be addressed. "It is the policy of the United States to have in place a
comprehensive and effective program to ensure continuity of essential federal
functions," the document says. "Essential functions" are defined as "those functions
that enable agencies to provide vital services, exercise civil authority,
maintain the safety and well-being of the general populace, and sustain the
industrial/economic base in an emergency."
But the new guidelines are once again aimed equally at far too wide a range
of departments. Right up there with agencies providing disaster relief, air
traffic control and electrical power are agencies like the Government Printing
Office and the Government National Mortgage Assn. (Ginnie Mae). For myself, I'd
rather have the contingency planning dollars spent on ways to safeguard the
electrical grid than on ways to collect mortgage payments during an emergency.
None of this is to say, of course, that the planning process hasn't been
useful. Among the contingencies discussed in the Coast Guard's continuity plan is
this little gem of advice for personnel assigned to the Coast Guard's
emergency site in West Virginia during a crisis: When traveling along Route 9W through
Loudoun County in Virginia, the report cautions, "be careful to observe the
posted speed limits. The local police are vigorous enforcers of the law."
Now that's contingency planning.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times
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