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How to Pack for the Bunker

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail: warkin@igc.org.

The country may not be fully prepared for another terrorist attack, but one thing, at least, has been settled: Government employees assigned to take up positions at “Site R,” the Raven Rock underground bunker that housed Vice President Dick Cheney after Sept. 11, have been told what to pack.

Among the reams of documents produced by the federal government in the name of contingency planning, one is devoted entirely to the details of bunker life. According to the Relocation Procedures and Support Handbook, those heading for Site R near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border should leave their pagers, radios, knives and alcohol at home.

What should they bring? “All personnel designated to relocate,” the handbook advises, “are encouraged to bring two complete changes of clothing,” as well as a combination lock, flashlight, two towels and a “small box of washing powder.” The government will provide lodging, but it draws the line at detergent. Nor does the installation accommodate those who like a late dinner: Its dining facility, known as “Granite Cove,” closes at 5 p.m.

Occupants should not expect luxury -- or even private rooms. In the event of an emergency, officials expect Site R to be so crowded that the dormitory’s three-tiered bunk beds will be assigned in 12-hour shifts. One person will get the bed from, say, 10 p.m. to 10 a.m., and another worker will have it the other 12 hours of the day.

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The U.S. government first instituted a formalized system of “continuity of operations” planning during the Cold War in an effort to ensure that key agencies and departments would be able to continue functioning in the event of a nuclear war. After the demise of the Soviet Union, such planning languished until October 1998, when President Clinton issued a top-secret order directing all levels of government to develop plans that would clearly delineate a chain of command as well as identify alternative facilities and methods of communication.

Emergency preparations remained a high priority in the lead-up to the year 2000, as the government braced itself for possible Y2K computer problems. But when Jan. 1, 2000, came and went without catastrophe, bureaucrats returned to their slumber. By 2001, when President Bush took office, the government was still spending about $182 million annually on “continuity” programs, but most of that was spent by the Pentagon. Planning in the rest of government was very much on the back burner.

All that changed after Sept. 11, when the federal government found its emergency response hampered by inadequate planning and communications -- just the things Clinton had set out to fix. Today, contingency planning is once again a high priority. The current budget funds continuity programs to the tune of $500 million, and last year a one-time infusion of $652 million in supplemental funding was added to what was originally budgeted.

But has the added spending made us safer?

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A scathing General Accounting Office report issued last February warned that the continuity program was a shambles. In its report, titled “Continuity of Operations: Improved Planning Needed to Ensure Delivery of Essential Government Services,” the agency found that as of Oct. 1, 2002, almost four years after Clinton launched his initiative and a year after Sept. 11, three agencies (unidentified in the report) had still not drawn up continuity plans. Of 15 major civilian government departments and agencies, not one had a plan that complied with all of the guidelines promulgated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. One agency had identified only three “essential functions” needing to be addressed in planning, whereas others had identified scores of such functions, including ones the GAO said “appeared to be of secondary importance.” At the same time, the report noted, agencies failed to identify as crucial “programs that had been previously defined as ‘high impact.’ ” One plan included as an essential function providing “speeches and articles for the secretary and deputy secretary.”

In the end, emergency planning suffers from the same disease that plagues a lot of government bureaucracies: an inability to identify what’s most important and give it priority. When the government issued its guidelines for contingency plans, it treated the National Science Foundation as if it were just as important as the Department of Energy. This kind of thinking mirrors a much larger problem with homeland security, which fails in many aspects of planning to distinguish between New York City and Vermont and spends princely sums on farfetched and exotic threats at the expense of mundane precautions for much more likely contingencies.

In June, the Department of Homeland Security issued yet another set of guidelines, this one with the compelling title “Federal Preparedness Circular 65.” At first glance, it seems like the problems identified by the GAO will finally be addressed. “It is the policy of the United States to have in place a comprehensive and effective program to ensure continuity of essential federal functions,” the document says. “Essential functions” are defined as “those functions that enable agencies to provide vital services, exercise civil authority, maintain the safety and well-being of the general populace, and sustain the industrial/economic base in an emergency.”

But the new guidelines are once again aimed equally at far too wide a range of departments. Right up there with agencies providing disaster relief, air traffic control and electrical power are agencies like the Government Printing Office and the Government National Mortgage Assn. (Ginnie Mae). For myself, I’d rather have the contingency planning dollars spent on ways to safeguard the electrical grid than on ways to collect mortgage payments during an emergency.

None of this is to say, of course, that the planning process hasn’t been useful. Among the contingencies discussed in the Coast Guard’s continuity plan is this little gem of advice for personnel assigned to the Coast Guard’s emergency site in West Virginia during a crisis: When traveling along Route 9W through Loudoun County in Virginia, the report cautions, “be careful to observe the posted speed limits. The local police are vigorous enforcers of the law.”

Now that’s contingency planning.


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