Shadow Government Is at Work in Secret

By Barton Gellman and Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 1, 2002

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 first-hand 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 past five 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.

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