“President Bush issued a formal national security directive yesterday ordering agencies to prepare contingency plans for a surprise, ‘decapitating’ attack on the federal government, and assigned responsibility for coordinating such plans to the White House.
The prospect of a nuclear bomb being detonated in Washington without warning, whether smuggled in by terrorists or a foreign government, has been cited by many security analysts as a rising concern since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The order makes explicit that the focus of federal worst-case planning involves a covert nuclear attack against the nation’s capital, in contrast with Cold War assumptions that a long-range strike would be preceded by a notice of minutes or hours as missiles were fueled and launched.”
— The Washington Post, May 10
To anybody who has followed homeland security issues, this action was not a shock. The attack on Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001 — frontally on the Pentagon and unsuccessfully on Congress — showed the vulnerability we have in the capital city to a sudden devastating terrorist attack. The real threat, the worst-case scenario, has changed from the possibility of missiles launched from Siberia, with perhaps 30 minutes notice, to a suitcase nuclear weapon — or several — set off without warning. [IMGCAP(1)]
Such a suitcase bomb could obliterate a six-square-block area in Washington, meaning two could eliminate the Capitol, its environs, the White House and most of the executive agencies.
This is not fanciful. It may be unlikely, even far-fetched, in the short run. But the combination of evil people who would love to see us decapitated and the increasingly ready availability of materials and technology to build such weapons — combined with the relative ease of smuggling them into the country — is a truly frightening reality.
Modern presidents and their subordinates always have had a mind-set of concern about disastrous attacks on the United States and the need to make sure there always is a head of government, along with heads of agencies, in place. Continuity plans have been a core part of every new White House, and staffers are designated to draw them up and implement them, as well as to design exercises to test those plans.
The Bush administration plans were revised after Sept. 11 to include a more elaborate structure to send a steady stream of top career people from every agency to undisclosed locations outside of Washington for weeklong periods, to make sure that someone in the line of succession — with the power to approve money, sign checks and carry out the authority of the government in the agency — would be available in the event of a disaster.
During the Cold War era, Congress had a plan as well — an elaborate bunker set up adjacent to the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, prepared for lawmakers’ occupation for extended periods after a nuclear attack. It had its own radioactive-free air, water and food supplies, with a makeshift chamber, the ability to communicate to the outside, and dorm facilities. Most Members knew nothing of this bunker; only the leaders knew about it (and that spouses and other family members would not be included). The secret bunker was outed several years ago and is now a popular tourist attraction.
Since the days of the bunker, the world and the threat have changed. The executive branch has responded by updating and adapting its plans to make sure that a government — at least an executive branch — always will be in place to do the people’s business. Not so Congress.
Following Sept. 11, Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) saw the yawning gap in our continuity plans and began to think about a new way to make sure a full, representative and vibrant Congress could always be in place, even after a terrorist attack on the Capitol.
I wrote my first column on this problem a few weeks after Sept. 11. Not long after, the Brookings Institution’s Tom Mann and I worked to put together an independent Continuity of Government Commission, co-chaired by one-time White House counsel Lloyd Cutler and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), to examine the challenges in continuity for all three branches, and we issued a first report on Congress. We were joined in our efforts by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who worked tirelessly to make sure Congress was prepared, with support from Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).
Five and a half years later, with the threat still palpable, Congress’ record is dismal at best. When the Republicans were in control, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) were dismissive. House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) were active opponents of any responsible action in this area; the actions they took, including an expedited special election plan and a rules change to allow smaller quorums, were ill-considered, sloppily prepared, high-handed and inadequate. Nothing was done on presidential succession, which remains inadequate for the new threats (with no help on this front from the president), or on the Supreme Court, which needs serious action as well.
The Democrats have pledged to lead a “do-something” Congress. Here is a major test: When are we going to have hearings and action to reverse or amend the bad things done in previous Congresses on continuity and to begin to give the American people what they deserve — assurance that no matter what terrorists plan or achieve, our fundamental institutions of government will be there, up and running, to face them? I ask this question of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution Chairman Feingold, along with their minority counterparts.
So far in the 110th, nothing has been done. When will you change that sorry record?
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.