When Will We Finally Address Continuity Shortcomings?

Posted December 9, 2008 at 6:26pm

The past few weeks, which gave us a terrible attack in India and grave warnings about potential attacks at home, should have sent a jolt into our political process and our Congressional leadership.

[IMGCAP(1)]First came Mumbai, where terrorists launched what was, no doubt, a highly sophisticated and well-planned mission, prepared over years and executed with precision. But it was also decidedly low-tech in terms of the weapons involved — AK-47s, variations of which are available over many store counters, along with grenade launchers and the like. Yet look at the havoc wreaked and the lives lost.

Second was the report of the so-called WMD Commission, led by two sober and estimable former Members of the Senate, Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.). The commission said directly that we can expect an attack, using nuclear or biological weapons of mass destruction, somewhere in the world within the next five years.

Last month, I was a part a “tabletop” exercise — call it a war game — conducted through the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The title was “The Morning After,” and the exercise was predicated on a plausible scenario of a terrorist attack using WMD. I, as a faux member of the National Security Council, and my colleagues, drawn from inside and outside government, were given the information that would be available in the immediate aftermath of such an attack, updated through the next day or two. We were charged with making decisions about how to respond — not just to the attack itself, but how to deal with the victims, the surrounding population, the rest of the world, the challenges to the governing structure and so on.

Three such exercises were done using three chillingly plausible scenarios among many. It was not difficult to immerse oneself in the scene and to think about the challenges for policymakers at the federal, state and local level. In our review, it was also not difficult to see how many gaps we have in our ability to respond to the unknown, with limited resources and limited information, and to realize how, no matter how thorough the advance planning, plans can go out the window on the first contact with the enemy and the reality.

But it also reinforced for me how thoroughly irresponsible Congress has been over the past seven years when it comes to providing some of the basic insurance needed to minimize the impact of the kinds of attacks we might expect, to devote the resources to protect the country and to make sure we can respond adequately in the aftermath of something horrific.

Of course, I am first referring to my long-standing hobbyhorse, the continuity of government. This is not just about making sure we have a Congress up and running, or effectively reconstituted, after a devastating attack on Washington. In the scenarios, one can also see serious challenges involving presidential succession. The White House and other parts of the executive branch have done extensive work on continuity of government and continuity of operations for the executive, much of it classified or secret—but they can’t do anything about the core element of presidential succession, which is set by the Constitution and law.

The fact is, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 is woefully inadequate to the modern threats we face, and Congress needs urgently to reconsider it. At the same time, we could have very serious questions of legality and struggles among important actors, in the fog of war and the aftermath of a devastating attack, over who is or should be acting president, and whether a rump group could actually serve as a legitimate Congress, including perhaps choosing a Speaker who would become acting president. Here, we need a functioning Supreme Court to make key judgments of legitimacy, and there is no plan to reconstitute the court if it falls below its statutory quorum of six justices.

It is also clear that in the event of something as horrible as a nuclear bomb, which would set off a radiation plume covering a substantial area around the attack itself, the public would be in panic mode, and our ability to respond — by taking care of the people directly killed or injured, keeping calm, minimizing further death or injury and maintaining public order — would make Hurricane Katrina look like a minor exercise in comparison. Making sure we have adequate communications vehicles for emergency responders is one thing (still not settled, by the way). But also making sure that if the electrical grid is knocked out, cell towers downed and the Internet disabled, government actors could communicate with the public — and the public would have some means to receive those communications.

What to do? Obviously, Congress needs to deal soon with Congressional, presidential and Supreme Court succession. Let me be very blunt here. Sept. 11, 2001, should have been a wake-up call. If United 93 had not been delayed and left on time, its passengers would not have known they were on a suicide mission, and the plane would likely have hit the Capitol Dome that morning, wreaking havoc and perhaps destroying Congress for many months, leaving the country with a form of martial law. Sadly, we did nothing constructive to make sure we could reconstitute a full and robust representative body quickly when the next attack occurred.

Now consider Mumbai. Imagine a nice warm day, and five taxis pull up near the Capitol and 10 guys with backpacks get out, pull out AK-47s and grenades and go after anybody walking from the Cannon and Longworth buildings to the Capitol as they move quickly to storm the entrances. The Capitol Police are armed and trained, and there is a lot of security, but if one, two or more of them got inside, they could create the same kind of devastation in a short period of time that the terrorists did in Mumbai. In other words, we can’t rely only on deterring a plane attack, or a dump truck trying to get a car bomb near the Capitol; even a low-tech attack could create a disaster.

But we need more than security, or even the kind of continuity action I and others have long advocated. I would make it mandatory that top Congressional leaders, including the chairmen and ranking members of Armed Services, Homeland Security and many other committees attend or create their own tabletop exercises. Believe me, you can only understand the scope and nuance of some of the problems and gaps in policy and resources we have by going through such exercises. It is now mandatory, by executive order, that all Cabinet officers do several of these exercises each year. The same should be true of party and committee leaders in Congress.

Second, we need serious attention paid to the larger swath of communications issues triggered by the kinds of attacks that could disable most of our modern methods of communication for extended periods of time, and to create clear contingency plans. It can include something as simple as providing portable generators to enable radio communications from government leaders at all levels, and providing hand-cranked portable radios to designated citizen leaders in neighborhoods who can hear the emergency communications and then deliver them face-to-face to their neighbors if necessary. One small step would help: The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee should recreate its Subcommittee on Telecommunications so that there is a clear focal point for these issues, among the many that the telecom area faces.

These problems are no longer in the realm of theory. How many more wake-up calls before we get some minimal action to protect the country and system?

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