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America's doomsday secrets

November 2, 2012, at 7:38 PM
 

On Sunday, the Discovery Channel will air a documentary I helped produce and appear in. Called America's Doomsday Secrets, its subject is the classified history of the government's continuity programs. 

Originally, the classified programs, known informally as COG programs, for Continuity of Government, were designed to reconstitute the government after a Soviet nuclear missile attack. It was as if the U.S. government had become self-aware, realizing that without an operating central government, America as we know it would not exist. This wasn't a problem until the early part of the 21st century because most important functions could be handled by states and cities and towns without direction, coordination, and funding.

The programs ramped up during the Cold War, atrophied during the 1970s, were revived with a vengeance in the 1980s — this is where our doc breaks some new ground — and then, in the 1990s, changed their focus. Instead of solely focusing on the government, the concept of continuity broadened out to include national emergency preparedness. The secret programs became part of a national strategy to respond to disasters of all types. Less emphasis was placed on bunkers and senior leadership communication, as I learned when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told me last year that he couldn't really remember ever having participated in a COG exercise when he was Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff. At the same time, though, plans to stockpile emergency medicine and supplies grew and matured. A cottage industry of continuity consultants was born. Federal agencies were encouraged to think smartly about how they would function if everything blew apart.

Then came 9/11, a day when the highest tier of COG programs was activated. Major leaders were evacuated properly; communications between them was frighteningly sporadic. George W. Bush ordered his staff to study and revivify these programs. And they were shaped, at least early in the Bush administration, by Dick Cheney's fear that al Qaeda had smuggled a nuclear weapon into the United States.   

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has played a significant role in these programs since the agency was formed in 1979. Indeed, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate told me in an interview about two years ago that he spends about 30 percent of his non-disaster-recovery time on Continuity of Government programs. 

Today, COG programs are big and integrated into the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. Americans got a taste for them earlier in the year when FEMA tested its Emergency Alert System, the goal of which is to give the president an uninterrupted ability to speak to Americans anytime and anywhere. The emergency alerts that now pulse through some of our cell phones were developed by the FCC and a little known COG agency called the National Communication System. A lot of the COG infrastructure is used to help regular people in emergencies. Most of FEMA's assets can be requisitioned by the White House Military Office if the president so orders, but they have regular, everyday purposes too. Virtually every federal agency now has a Continuity of Operations plan, thanks to a 2007 directive from the Bush administration. Some are good, and some aren't, but the government's ability to spring back from something catastrophic is definitely more developed than it was.

One of the subtle ways in which the secret programs and everyday emergency response intersect is the technology that major telecoms use for cell towers. It is much harder to knock out a city's wireless networks now, in part because the towers store electricity and can run on battery power for days. Classified technology has been used to harden cell systems in critical areas against electromagnetic pulses that might result from a nuclear denotation or an intense coronal injection. 

COG programs create controversy because they're secret and they evoke fears of a shadow government. They're also expensive. Perhaps their costs don't justify their benefits. It's hard to have this debate in public. I hope the documentary, produced by Partisan Productions, provides a faithful and revealing picture of what my words can't describe. And I do hope you'll watch!

 

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

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