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BACK TO THE BUNKER
In the aftermath, the federal government was told to reinvigorate its continuity efforts. Bush approved lines of succession for civil agencies. Cabinet departments and agencies were assigned specific emergency responsibilities. FEMA issued new preparedness guidelines and oversaw training. A National Capital Region continuity working group established in 1999, comprising six White House groups, 15 departments and 61 agencies, met to coordinate.
But all the frenetic activity did not produce a government prepared for the worst. A year after 9/11, and almost three years after the deadline set in Clinton's 1998 directive, the Government Accounting Office evaluated 38 agencies and found that not one had addressed all the issues it had been ordered to. A 2004 GAO audit of 34 government continuity-of-operations plans found total confusion on the question of essential functions. One unnamed organization listed 399 such functions. A department included providing "speeches and articles for the Secretary and Deputy Secretary" among its essential duties, while neglecting many of its central programs.
The confusion and absurdity have continued, according to documents I've collected over the past few years. In June 2004, FEMA told federal agencies that essential services in a catastrophe would include not only such obvious ones as electric power generation and disaster relief but also patent and trademark processing, student aid and passport processing. A month earlier, FEMA had told states and local communities that library services should be counted as essential along with fire protection and law enforcement.
None of this can be heartening to Americans who want to believe that in a crisis, their government can distinguish between what is truly essential and what isn't -- and provide it.
Just two years ago, an exercise called Forward Challenge '04 pointed up the danger of making everyone and everything essential: Barely an hour after agencies were due to arrive at their relocation sites, the Office of Management and Budget asked the reconstituted government to identify emergency funding requirements.
As one after-action report for the exercise later put it in a classic case of understatement: "It was not clear . . . whether this would be a realistic request at that stage of an emergency."
This year's exercise, Forward Challenge '06, will be the third major interagency continuity exercise since 9/11. Larger than Forward Challenge '04 and the Pinnacle exercise held last year, it requires 31 departments and agencies (including FEMA) to relocate. Fifty to 60 are expected to take part.
According to government sources, the exercise will test the newly created continuity of government alert conditions -- called COGCONs -- that emulate the DEFCONs of the national security community. Forward Challenge will begin with a series of alerts via BlackBerry and pager to key officials. It will test COGCON 1, the highest level of preparedness, in which each department and agency is required to have at least one person in its chain of command and sufficient staffing at alternate operating facilities to perform essential functions.
Though key White House officials and military leadership would be relocated via the Pentagon's Joint Emergency Evacuation Program (JEEP), the civilians are on their own to make it to their designated evacuation points.
But fear not: Each organization's COOP, or continuity of operations plan, details the best routes to the emergency locations. The plans even spell out what evacuees should take with them (recommended items: a combination lock, a flashlight, two towels and a small box of washing powder).
Can such an exercise, announced well in advance, hope to re-create any of the tensions and fears of a real crisis? How do you simulate the experience of driving through blazing, radiated, panic-stricken streets to emergency bunker sites miles away?
As the Energy Department stated in its review of Forward Challenge '04, "a method needs to be devised to realistically test the ability of . . . federal offices to relocate to their COOP sites using a scenario that simulates . . . the monumental challenges that would be involved in evacuating the city."
With its new plans and procedures, Washington may think it has thought of everything to save itself. Forward Challenge will no doubt be deemed a success, and officials will pronounce the continuity-of-government project sound. There will be lessons to be learned that will justify more millions of dollars and more work in the infinite effort to guarantee order out of chaos.
But the main defect -- a bunker mentality that considers too many people and too many jobs "essential" -- will remain unchallenged.
William M. Arkin writes the Early Warning blog for washingtonpost.com and is the author of "Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs and Operations in the 9/11 World" (Steerforth Press).