After the attacks, Hagin refocused his work to head off this sort of communications dysfunction in the next crisis. The goal: Move information to the president immediately—anywhere, regardless of place or time—about threats to the homeland. If the president couldn’t be reached, the Defense secretary had to be available to make decisions. The president could delegate his authority to the vice president—but Bush wanted to have the option to do so or not, something that aides got the strong impression he had not had on September 11 when Cheney jumped in decisively. No one blamed Cheney, who was steeped in Reagan-era continuity planning, but they recognized that the legitimacy of the presidency was at stake if the vice president had to improvise. What if the president needed to decide on a nuclear attack but couldn’t be reached?
“[Bush] said to me, ‘We need to fix this and fix it quickly.’ ” —Joseph Hagin, former White House deputy chief of staff for operations
“We worked quickly to reduce the time it took to get the president ready to make a call for Noble Eagle events,” a former Bush administration official told National Journal, referring to the combat air-patrol canopy over Washington. If a plane were to violate the air-defense zone, the president would receive instant briefings and could be connected to the National Military Command Center within minutes. Officials updated the technology of the nuclear-launch briefcase, the so-called football, and revised its accompanying folders to include contingency responses to a range of disasters.
The U.S. Northern Command, or Northcom, was launched in 2003 to oversee the defense of the country’s interior; it also took responsibility for the combat air patrols over Washington and for several units that perform classified missions related to homeland defense. Northcom, headquartered at the District of Columbia’s Fort McNair, was given shoot-down authority for airplanes across the country.
Working with the Energy Department, Northcom monitors a real-time radiation map of the Washington metropolitan area; almost every day, a department helicopter flies over sensitive areas to determine if the background levels have changed. Karl Horst, the commanding general of Joint Force Headquarters for the National Capital Region, told National Journal that Northcom is responsible for the antimissile batteries around Washington and for evacuating the government in catastrophic circumstances—by air, by ground, and by sea. A classified Concept of Operations plan known as Conplan 3600 spells out these functions.
For spiriting officials away, the government has more than a half-dozen command posts built into airplanes and more than a dozen transportable systems on the ground. Plans call for potentially stashing officials on submarines, aircraft carriers, and offshore bases—even in friendly foreign countries. Budget requests boosted the Secret Service’s budget by several hundred million dollars for emergency capabilities. The military established a second alternate command center on a base near the White House and a third bunker at the Pentagon.
It took several years and several hundred billion dollars to modernize the communications links between the president, the Cabinet, the military, and the bunkers—known informally as “the sites.” A number of redundant networks were put in place, run by a little-known agency called the National Communications System. Located in the Homeland Security Department, it manages a variety of secret projects, including one called SRAS, or Special Routing Arrangement Service, which gives government officials priority use of our communications systems in emergencies and acts as a hub to transmit emergency war orders. The National Security Council and the White House Military Office also manage a system of interlinked and redundant communications bunkers across the country that allow the president to communicate directly with, say, the director of the CIA or the FBI, wherever they are.
Hagin’s team modernized presidential relocation facilities, including the White House’s PEOC and the Raven Rock bunker that served as Cheney’s “undisclosed location.” Officials reopened several closed bunkers and constructed new ones in Colorado and Florida. Altogether, about a dozen formal presidential relocation facilities are stocked with six months’ worth of supplies. National Journal discovered a secret Defense Department agency responsible for COG acquisitions—the folks who make sure the bunkers have toilet paper. (The National Security Council asked NJ not to reveal its name because doing so would jeopardize the cover programs associated with other COG functions.) The agency operates out of a nondescript office building in Maryland.
It took two years to equip the president’s limousine with reliable, secure voice links to Royal Crown, the White House’s switchboard for classified communications. In 2004, Air Force One finally received teleconferencing capability—and live TV. The White House Communications Agency upgraded its Washington-area infrastructure and spent several years reconciling interoperability issues with the Secret Service. The communications agency surveyed major telecom carriers and found that one had much more capacity than the others; everyone got new phones. (National Journal was asked not to disclose the carrier.)