On the morning of September 11, 2001, after terrorists toppled the World Trade Center towers, rammed a jet into the Pentagon, and were thought to be in control of an unknown number of additional planes, the National Security Council ordered the government to act as if the apocalypse was now. A series of secret orders, known collectively as Continuity of Government, or COG, zipped across the government’s classified computer and phone networks.
On cue, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Alternate National Warning Center in Olney, Md., sent emergency action alerts. The 1st Helicopter Squadron (code-named “Mussel”) swooped down to the National Mall from Andrews Air Force Base, grabbed congressional leaders, and rushed them to the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center in Bluemont, Va. The Secret Service spirited first lady Laura Bush to a bunker beneath one of its buildings. An Army helicopter on standby at Davison Army Airfield, about 15 miles from the Pentagon, whisked the deputy Defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, to an enormous hardened bunker (code-named “Marconi”) deep within the Raven Rock Mountain Complex near Maryland’s border with Pennsylvania.
But 50 years of secret contingency planning, most of it drawn up with a U.S.-Soviet Union nuclear war in mind, had not anticipated a threat like the one that came on 9/11. No one had updated continuity-of-government plans for the Pax Americana. Communication nodes malfunctioned, leaving President Bush, who was in Florida, out of touch with the military and the White House at key points during the day. Hotlines, conference-call systems, and telephone circuits with built-in preemption capability—the key connections between all the moving parts—were unreliable.
The government couldn’t find Cabinet members; they and their security details were clueless about where to go. The Presidential Emergency Operations Center, or PEOC, three stories beneath the East Wing of the White House, was not always in contact with the president when it needed to be. For a time, the emergency center could not reach Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was assisting with the rescue operations at the Pentagon, even though an officer or two from the Pentagon Communication Agency accompanied his personal protection detail.
That day did not cause an existential crisis for American government. The evacuation of key leaders from Washington worked well enough. But the problem was distilled by a furious phone call from Bush to PEOC at 10:08 a.m. demanding to know what the hell was going on. Fact is, the people there didn’t really know and weren’t equipped to find out.
Eventually, officials realized they had a major national-security threat that was independent of terrorism: Any major catastrophe in Washington could bring down the federal government, blurring chains of command and separating decision makers from intelligence. And if something truly catastrophic happened, they acknowledged, they would have no idea how to reconstitute government afterward.
PREPARING FOR THE WORST
Months before September 11, riding in a routine springtime motorcade in Washington, Bush had tried to make a telephone call from his limousine. Static. He couldn’t get a signal. When he arrived at the White House, he pointed to Joseph Hagin, his deputy chief of staff for operations—the man responsible for making the president go—and motioned him over. In no uncertain terms, Bush told Hagin that the president should be able to make a telephone call to anyone at any time. “He essentially said to me, ‘We need to fix this and fix it quickly.’ He asked, ‘What would we do if something really serious happened and this didn’t work?’ ” For the next seven years, Hagin led an extremely secret, multibillion-dollar effort to reconstitute the nation’s doomsday plans. He has never before given a formal interview on the subject.
Hagin had not finished the job by September 11. The day after, at a National Security Council meeting, Bush was “irate,” as one aide put it, about the failure in communication that caused the breakdown in the chain of command. To this day, senior members of the NSC do not know whether Bush gave Vice President Dick Cheney the authority to order planes shot down, as Cheney asserted. (Bush later said he did, in a conversation between the two before 10 a.m., but no evidence exists, and many members of the administration suspect that Bush gave Cheney no such blessing, though none would say so on the record.) The 9/11 commission, which was established to prepare a full account of the circumstances surrounding the terrorist attacks, including the government’s preparedness and response, noted only that the president’s and vice president’s recollections did not necessarily jibe with the notes taken by others who were with both men that morning.
This article appears in the April 9, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.