Many of the assets that FEMA uses to mitigate and respond to disasters have classified functions that kick in when COG plans are executed. The number of programs is secret, but the government has secure facilities at every Cabinet headquarters and relocation site that contain protected vaults stocked with bright red binders. The binders spell out the COG plans for the department. The security officers who guard the vaults and safes are paid by their departments, but they actually report to the White House Military Office.
Presidential helicopters are a weak link in the chain of command. Officially, the HMX-1 squadron, based in Quantico, Va., has at least 17 working helos. The reality is that a large number are used for spare parts. The copters are 30 years old, and President Obama killed a follow-on program because it was more than $1 billion over budget. Back when Bush was on board, the helicopters experienced two power failures and one communications breakdown. Designed for 14 passengers, many of the choppers seat only 10 because of bulky emergency communication equipment and countermeasures. (The Secret Service, which supervises presidential COG programs, declined to comment, and the Marine Corps referred requests for comment to the White House.) A White House official said that Obama endorses a reasonably priced alternative and that it is on track.
The secret COG apparatus is huge: One former government official with knowledge of the budget estimates that continuity-of-government programs have cost $20 billion over the past 10 years. When Obama took office, he asked for a full accounting. A six-month study concluded that although the COG expansion made it much likelier that the president and the Cabinet members could be safely hidden and protected, the plans did not sufficiently address what happened next—when Cabinet secretaries had to figure out how to respond to a paralyzing influenza pandemic, for example. Would state governments follow federal orders? Would private companies allow the executive branch to take over their operations and carry out orders? Who had the telephone numbers of the superintendents of major school districts so that the president could call and personally request that a system be shut down if a state refused to do so?
Obama has kept the COG infrastructure intact for now. According to administration officials, he has also pushed to link its functions with the rest of the government’s catastrophe planning. Last year, the administration held what it called the biggest continuity-of-government exercise since September 11; top White House officials were evacuated, as were members of the Cabinet and their senior aides. “The goal was to see how we could all get off-site and still communicate,” a senior official said. Obama participated from the White House Situation Room. An annual tabletop exercise called Eagle Horizon, which envisions multiple simultaneous catastrophes, included more participants in 2010 than any other exercise of its kind before, according to a FEMA official.
Hagin said he did not intend to criticize the Obama administration, and he informed the NSC about his cooperation with National Journal. But he also told NJ that he observes a sense of drift in all branches of government as the passage of time since September 11 draws focus from emergency preparedness. He worries that COG programs, which have large but classified budgets, face pressure to slash spending. “The continuity-of-government programs took on an urgency [on September 11] that they certainly had not held since the fall of the Berlin Wall and possibly at any time since the Cuban missile crisis,” Hagin told National Journal. No matter the cost, the Bush administration was determined to take them seriously. It was forced to.
SEPARATION OF POWERS
Decapitation attacks from terrorists or natural disasters that could paralyze Washington are low-probability, high-impact events. It’s hard to protect against them, let alone figure out how to pay for those protections. Resources are finite. When a military asset is deployed as a backup communication system to another backup communication system on the chance that an improbable event might happen, that asset is not available to support troops in actual combat. These are legitimate trade-offs that should be debated.
Yet, by definition, very few people have a bird’s-eye view of the COG programs from which to debate them. And because they are enmeshed in questions about the Constitution and the separation of powers, Congress has very little oversight for them. The National Security Council controls these “Special Access Programs,” and virtually everything about them is orally briefed to a few select members of Congress. Not even the chairs of the Homeland Security committees are privy to all the details. Consequently, almost no debate about COG takes place—how much it costs and what assumptions govern its implementation. And it is not even clear which branch of government should have authority over continuity of government.