Seven Years After 9/11, U.S. Still Lacks Good Continuity Plan

Posted September 16, 2008 at 4:26pm

Last Thursday was the seventh anniversary of the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001. After appearing with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in New York, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) visited Shanksville, Pa., where one of the hijacked planes crashed when the passengers blocked the terrorists from reaching their target. McCain noted, “It is believed that the terrorists on United Flight 93 may have intended to crash the airplane into the United States Capitol. Hundreds, if not thousands of people, would have been at work in that building.”

[IMGCAP(1)]McCain is, of course, absolutely right. Among the hundreds or thousands would have been substantial numbers of Members of the House, who would have been killed, seriously injured or left missing in the rubble, leaving Congress without a quorum and without the ability to do any official business for many, many months. That in turn would have left the United States to operate under a form of martial law, with President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft making unilateral decisions about taking military action, sending support to the sites of the attacks, drafting and implementing the USA PATRIOT Act and many other things.

In the weeks that followed 9/11, America was gripped by another story — the deadly anthrax attacks on Senate offices, television anchors and others, leaving several people dead and others seriously injured, and creating panic around the Capitol. Seven years after that nightmare, we may — I stress may — have uncovered the progenitor of the anthrax attacks. But if indeed it was one lone rogue scientist perpetrating the deeds, it makes it even more frightening; if that high-grade anthrax had been injected into the Senate’s ventilation system, we might have had 60 or 70 Senators dead or in intensive care units for weeks or months, leaving the Senate unable to meet or act.

Seven years is a long time, but the enormity and depravity of the acts are fresh. Nonetheless, one would think that seven years is enough time for even a slow-moving political system to create basic insurance to prevent the kind of chaos and injury to the American constitutional system that would come with another, more successful, attack on official Washington.

Never mind. In one of the more shameworthy lapses in our dysfunctional government, especially in Congress, nothing constructive has been done to protect our elections, our legislative branch, our presidential succession process or our Supreme Court from the consequences of the kind of terrorist attack that every expert we have believes is quite likely to occur in the future.

Start with the elections. We know that al-Qaida acted directly to disrupt and influence the elections in Spain a few years back. We have no plan in place if something happens in one or more sites on Nov. 4 that could throw the results of this consequential presidential election into the air. There have been no serious hearings on what might be done, no actions taken except in some states here or there by the individual secretaries of state.

We have had no deliberation over what happens if attacks occur on the presidential or vice presidential candidates at different stages of our complicated political process — between the conventions and the election, after the election but before the electors meet to cast their ballots, after the electors meet but before Congress acts to certify the electoral votes, after Congress acts but before the inauguration.

There has been no significant action to ensure that if Congress is wiped out or left without a constitutionally mandated quorum, it can be reconstituted quickly. The previous Republican Congress passed a woefully inadequate, poorly drafted bill to expedite special elections that is almost farcical; the Democratic Congress has neither repealed it, amended it nor offered any realistic alternative. The Republican House jammed through a clearly unconstitutional rule unilaterally changing the constitutional definition of a quorum, a change that was rejected by every major constitutional scholar who was asked; the Democratic Congress inexplicably left it in place.

The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 has no relevance to the challenges and potential disasters of 2008 and beyond. But we have had a single hearing of relevance over the past seven years, and no action whatsoever. The Supreme Court has no succession plan at all in place — despite the fact that if there were a disaster, and real questions raised about what is appropriate and constitutional, the court would or should play a critical role as arbiter. Once again, nothing done over seven years.

We are approaching an inauguration that will be historic in many ways — and also the single most vulnerable day for our constitutional system. The plans to ensure that the worst-case scenario there will not turn into an even worse scenario for the country and its future? Zero. Happy seventh anniversary.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.