How the Federal Emergency Management Agency learned to stop worrying — about civilians — and love the bomb.

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James Lee Witt, like his boss and friend, Bill Clinton, is a well-meaning man and a would-be reformer. A native of Wildcat Hollow, Arkansas, Witt is a modest fellow who wears ostrich-skin cowboy boots and is not above taking a Greyhound bus or helping to salt icy roads.

As director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the former Arkansas director of disaster relief has undertaken a reorganization that, he says, will reshape the mission of the much-maligned agency. But no Arkansas flood or blizzard could have prepared him for FEMA, whose effectiveness in coping with natural disasters has long been hamstrung by its Cold War obsession with helping the U.S. government survive a nuclear attack. How many hundreds of millions of dollars have been sunk into Strangelovian bunkers, how many tens of thousands of hours invested in preparing for that apocalyptic vision? Only a handful of senior doomsday officials may ever know–and despite his position, Witt is probably not among them.

A review by the National Academy of Public Administration estimated that 27 percent of FEMA’s 1993 budget (excluding the disaster-relief fund)–about $100 million–went into the secret “black budget.” Officials insist that some of the money is used for natural-disaster assistance. But for years, as the nation endured earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes, FEMA’s National Preparedness Directorate concealed portions of its communications capabilities and exotic paraphernalia, unwilling to deploy them in rescue and assistance efforts out of fear that doing so would expose security “assets” to enemy eyes.

Within months of arriving in Washington in March 1993, Witt vowed to lift the veil of secrecy on the doomsday apparatus and its array of hardware–vast underground installations, mobile units, ultrasophisticated communications gear, and computer-modeling capabilities–and harness it for the benefit of ordinary citizens struggling against natural disasters. After four months on the job he was optimistic. “We have declassified just about everything except a small portion that deals with the National Security Council,” he boasted. But last fall Witt, who is usually readily available for interviews, could not find time–any time–to talk. FEMA had been reorganized, its secretive National Preparedness Directorate dismantled, and part of its supersensitive fifth floor opened up. The 1994 classified budget is now on the books at $7.5 million, a dramatic drop from last year’s $100 million. Witt has declared victory. “What he’s done is put FEMA in an all-hazards approach and put it aboveboard,” says FEMA spokesperson Morrie Goodman.

But then comes the kicker: “There are, of course, certain areas that can’t be discussed or even acknowledged. That’s just the nature of the beast,” says Goodman. In fact, much of the doomsday bureaucracy remains intact, parts of the fifth floor are still restricted, and there has been no concerted effort to declassify the underground command posts. There is also the distinct possibility that some classified programs have been spun off to the Department of Defense, as recommended in the National Academy’s 1993 review. In any case, the 1994 budget reflects only a fragment of FEMA’s investment in doomsday preparations, given that many former projects have been redesignated as “dual-use” responses for both natural disasters and national-security emergencies.

Others who have gone up against the secret bureaucracies that plan for doomsday could have predicted that efforts to dismantle or declassify the apparatus would meet with resistance. Wallace Stickney, FEMA’s director under George Bush, was one of the first to take on the doomsday planners. “The evil empire had crumbled, the Warsaw Pact nations were becoming independent, and it became clear that the most difficult situation we would have to handle wouldn’t be a maximum lay-down but a partial one, in which only a part of the country was knocked out,” says Stickney. “It was a time of transition on the world scene.”

Nevertheless, he says, “Getting that stuff declassified met with the full resistance of the security industry, as well as what might even be called a ‘security cult’–people who believed strongly in what they’d been doing for ten years and longer. There are many ways to make things move slowly when there are a lot of people working against it, and only a few trying to make it happen.”

Stickney says that even while he was FEMA’s director he was not privy to some of the most sensitive plans. He recalls one incident in which a congressional appropriations committee questioned his staff about a particular expenditure in the FEMA budget: “I was aware funding was being passed through but didn’t know where it was going–nor did Congress, which demanded to know. Normally, as I understood it, nobody questioned the arithmetic.” When questions were raised, the congressional leadership intervened, as did George White, the architect of the Capitol, among whose many responsibilities is to provide shelter to members of Congress in the event of a nuclear attack.

With vague references to national security, the doomsday budget went forward. “It was overlooked by gentlemen’s agreement,” says Stickney. As it happens, that funding was earmarked for maintaining the recently exposed, top-secret congressional nuclear hideaway buried beneath Greenbrier, a luxury resort in West Virginia. Not even most of those it was intended to protect–the members of Congress–were aware of its existence. Congress, the planners concluded, could not be trusted with the secret.

Other evidence indicates that the ostensible head of the doomsday apparatus–FEMA’s director–was not integral to the program. In all but the rosiest scenarios, during a nuclear attack Stickney was to remain at his office in Washington and, in the frank parlance of some planners, be “cindered.” Says another former FEMA official, “On paper, FEMA is the lead player, but, in fact, I don’t think anybody is the lead player–that’s part of the problem.”

To understand how the doomsday establishment became so entrenched, consider its origins in the late 1940s. Its first architects were World War II veterans, scarred by the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and horrified by the 1949 detonation of a Soviet atomic device. By 1950, plans for what was to become “Continuity of Government” had begun to take shape. Eisenhower would later tell his cabinet and staff, “Government which goes on with some kind of continuity will be like a one-eyed man in the land of the blind.”

In hindsight, it’s easy to reduce these cold warriors to caricatures, drafting their blueprints for subterranean and airborne command posts. But their two original objectives were rational enough: first, they hoped to avoid war by instilling in the Soviets the fear that the U.S. government would survive any strike and retaliate; and second, if there were a war, they hoped to avoid civil anarchy. In pursuit of these goals, cadres of military and civilian planners have spent virtually their entire lives underground at installations like the Pentagon’s Raven Rock in Maryland or Mount Weather in Virginia, where the president, cabinet, and Supreme Court justices could retreat. Still others manned the National Emergency Airborne Command Posts, a fleet of four converted 747s, at least one of which was always in the air during the Cold War. (Today the planes, which are estimated to have cost anywhere from $149 million to $250 million each, go up for about six hours a day.) It may all have been sheer lunacy, but in a world bristling with thermonuclear devices, madness is relative.

“People in responsible positions would be entirely remiss if they didn’t sit down and say, ‘What do we do if . . . ?’ It’s just that simple,” says Lieutenant General Richard Trefry, who, as Bush’s military assistant and director of the White House Military Office, was responsible for helping to ensure that presidential authority would continue during and after a nuclear attack.

In that netherworld devoted to thinking about the unthinkable, prudence and obsession sometimes became indistinguishable. Even devotees of buttoned-down security concede that secrecy claims were grossly abused. One former official who worked within the doomsday apparatus until last year says, “What happened is that everything became so overclassified that nothing was really classified. When everything gets protected, nothing gets protected because no distinctions are made. You lose your sense of why it’s being classified, you get sloppy, you start talking about things that you shouldn’t.”

Some plans were so shrouded in secrecy that they remained operational for decades, largely from inertia. The installation beneath the Greenbrier resort, for example, stood ready for more than thirty years to take in Congress in time of nuclear war. An army unit of communication specialists, posing as TV repairmen, manned the Greenbrier installation. The facility remains classified today, despite congressional calls for its closure.

Most sources are still reluctant to discuss the network of subterranean command centers across the country, including the extensive installation buried beneath the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland. (One of the more inventive entrances to the facility was concealed within a phony water tower.) During the shelter’s construction in the fall of 1959, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made a much-heralded tour of the U.S. and paid a visit to Camp David. A source recently revealed to Mother Jones that laborers worked night and day to haul away truckloads of dirt and stone, making sure to hide every trace of their excavations before Khrushchev’s arrival. A large deck was constructed to conceal the cavernous hole. Little did Khrushchev know, as he stood smiling on the deck posing for photographers, that he was atop a presidential relocation site.

Exempt from outside review, the doomsday planners were free to conjure up schemes both creative and bizarre. In the 1950s, a squad from the National Park Service was assigned to rescue the 2,080-pound Liberty Bell from nuclear meltdown. In the mid-1980s military planners, asked to identify what treasures should be removed from the Pentagon prior to attack, listed the portraits of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

If secrecy has shielded the doomsday planners from America’s enemies, it has also created a bureaucracy so profoundly isolated that it has often lost sight of its core mission: the preservation of the nation at large–its values and institutions–not merely its senior bureaucrats and totems of power.

Doomsday planners enjoyed a second heyday under Ronald Reagan, who poured massive resources into classified projects. John Brinkerhoff, a retired army colonel, headed FEMA’s National Preparedness Directorate from 1981 to 1983. “It’s rank revisionism to say we didn’t need to spend that money because the Soviets collapsed,” says Brinkerhoff. He is sharply critical of the press for delving into the mysteries of these classified programs. “I’ve never seen the morality of exposing our secrets to our enemies,” he says. “If you’re a football coach, you protect the secret of your game plan–you want to surprise your opponent in next Sunday’s match. You don’t want them to find out about it in practice. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

“At the time,” Brinkerhoff continues, “we were facing a threat of ten thousand warheads coming in. That wasn’t easy, but a program was put together that had a pretty good chance, if everything worked out all right.”

To those outside the doomsday mindset, the notion that anything could have “worked out all right” in the aftermath of a ten-thousand-nuclear-warhead attack strains credibility. Perhaps more to the point, no infusion of resources could ever ensure even the limited goals (that is, survival of the U.S. government) that the planners had in mind.

During Reagan’s second term, for example, military and civilian planners assembled in the basement of the Pentagon to conduct a secret doomsday exercise. During the simulated “worst-case” nuclear attack, planners discovered that they were unable to communicate with the top-secret relocation site from which the army was to conduct the war after the Pentagon’s incineration. Aboveground it was a sunny day–no atmospheric disturbances, much less the blinding electromagnetic pulses that would accompany a nuclear assault. Desperate to complete the exercise on schedule, the officials reluctantly resorted to calling their remote counterparts on the telephone–a system that under even the best wartime scenario would have been vaporized.

According to those in the know, such screwups have been legion. During one exercise, Eisenhower attempted to reach the safety of the Mount Weather site before imagined Soviet bombers arrived. His speeding motorcade found itself stuck behind a pig farmer’s truck on a rural Virginia road. In 1987 one of the National Emergency Airborne Command Posts was forced into a crash landing after a flock of geese was sucked into its engines. A scant five years ago, a snowstorm struck the capital, and a bureaucrat slated to play a role at Mount Weather in the case of nuclear attack remembered, as she stood in line at a bus stop, that her purse contained a priority identification card instructing all those in contact with her to expedite her journey. She presented the card to the driver, hoping to jump the queue. The driver laughed and directed her to the end of the line. She couldn’t help but ponder the effectiveness of the card in the panic of nuclear war.

The doomsday plan is plagued by flaws in conception as well as execution. Those who are expected to show up at relocation sites are forbidden from bringing their spouses or family members–in essence, they’re expected to abandon them at ground zero. Dozens of officials, including congressional leaders, cabinet secretaries, and midlevel functionaries who have willingly participated in relocation exercises, say that if the real thing occurred, they would head home and hug their loved ones.

One of the few to say he would relocate is former Agriculture Secretary John Block, a West Point grad. “I would follow orders,” he says. With such a process of unnatural selection at work, the character of the surviving civilian government–should one survive–might be unrecognizable.

Still, there is reason to believe that severe budgetary pressures and changing political climes are beginning to have some impact on FEMA’s doomsday bureaucracy. Under scrutiny from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and agency heads like Witt and Stickney, doomsday planners are being asked to render an accounting of themselves and their projects.

One hopeful example is the recently declassified Mobile Emergency Response Support fleet. The state-of-the-art vehicles, which are deployed at five sites nationwide, were to pick up senior government officials and provide mobile facilities for continuing government during and after nuclear attack. But MERS is quietly emerging from the shadows to assist after natural disasters such as Hurricane Andrew. Some forty-three MERS units were sent to Des Moines, Iowa, during the recent floods to provide communications backup, power units, and water-purification facilities. When the pope visited Denver last August, a MERS unit provided communications linkups.

But the projects FEMA has declassified don’t address the question facing the agency. What is needed is a fundamental rethinking of FEMA’s primary mission and how best to execute it. With the end of the Cold War, the doomsday nightmare is taking different shapes. Biological warfare could well be the major current threat, says Richard Trefry. Equally frightening is the prospect that terrorists might explode a nuclear device without prior notice. “Hell, no, there wouldn’t be any warning,” says Trefry, “unless someone dropped you a note and said, ‘In two hours, unless you do such and such, you’re all going to feel warm.'”

Everyone, even critics of the doomsday program, concedes that the collapse of the Soviet Union does not necessarily make the world a safer place. Robert Kupperman was in the White House Office of Emergency Preparedness from 1967 to 1972, served as chief scientist for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and until a few months ago was on FEMA’s advisory board. “The potential for the use of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons has never been greater,” Kupperman warns. “With no client-state apparatus to control terrorists, I think we’re facing greater dangers than we’ve ever faced.”

“There’s something to be said for a monolithic threat,” says Trefry. “There was more discipline than there is with a bunch of assholes running around. I would rather, quite frankly, put my faith in a guy like Gorbachev than I would in a guy like Saddam or Khaddafy.”

Although U.S. officials obviously won’t discuss contingency plans for dealing with nuclear-armed terrorists, they have been preparing for them for years. Mother Jones has uncovered that in 1986 the Reagan administration conducted an elaborate, top-secret exercise dubbed “Mighty Derringer.” The exercise’s scenario involved terrorists who had smuggled nuclear devices into a fictitious country. A jet took off from Washington carrying antiterrorist commandos from the Delta Force, State Department officials, CIA representatives, and a cache of weapons. After landing at Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base, the commandos went into the desert and wiped out the fictional terrorists before they could detonate their weapons. The costliness of “Mighty Derringer” illustrates just how seriously the U.S. government takes the threat of nuclear-armed terrorists.

Those who have invested their lives in preparing for the worst have been quick to seize upon each new threat as justification for holding vast resources at the ready and preserving the secrecy that envelops the doomsday network. China’s recent detonation of an underground nuclear device, and the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center, they argue, are merely a prelude to dangerous times ahead.

As an outsider, James Lee Witt, like those before him, will find it difficult to resist the dire projections, to assert himself over a deeply embedded and self-perpetuating culture, and to balance the projected needs of a nation under nuclear attack with those of a civilian population periodically stricken by floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes. “I don’t think the Cold War will ever be over for anyone,” he says. “Anytime there is a weapon of [nuclear] magnitude, we need to be prepared to a certain extent.”

As for the nation’s population at large, it has been pretty well left to fend for itself since the government has, for all practical purposes, gotten out of the civil-defense business. Consider the FEMA booklet entitled “Are You Ready?” and dated September 1990. Under the topic heading “What to do in case of nuclear attack,” it offers such time-honored wisdom as “Do not look at the flash” and “If you are caught outdoors . . . lie flat on the ground and cover your head.”

That may be the position in which the doomsday planners find themselves if Congress and FEMA make good on their promises to force them out of their bunkers. Then again, the doomsday establishment has already proved that it possesses an uncanny gift for survival.

Ted Gup is a Washington freelancer. He is a former investigative correspondent for Time magazine.


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Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

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