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Context of '1982-April 1994: Planners Build and Maintain High-Tech Fleet of Mobile Command Centers'

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), known best as a relief agency for victims of natural disasters, is secretly dedicated to the highly classified Continuity of Government (COG) program, which is meant to ensure the survival of the federal government in times of national emergency. Upon its establishment, FEMA absorbs the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (DCPA) and the Federal Preparedness Agency (FPA), which were previously responsible for the top-secret plans (see April 1, 1979). During the 1980s and into the early 1990s, FEMA’s budget and workforce are overwhelming geared towards the COG program (see 1982-1991 and February 1993). FEMA remains in charge of overseeing the government’s continuity plans up to present day. According to FEMA’s website, the agency’s Office of National Continuity Programs (NCP) is currently the “Lead Agent for the Federal Executive Branch on matters concerning continuity of national operations under the gravest of conditions.” [fema.gov, 6/4/2009]

Entity Tags: Office of National Continuity Programs, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Defense Civil Preparedness Agency, Federal Preparedness Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The National Preparedness Directorate within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is responsible for overseeing parts the highly classified Continuity of Government (COG) program, develops and maintains a high-tech fleet of mobile command centers, known as Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) units. The MERS vehicles, crafted out of 18-wheel tractor-trailer trucks, are meant to provide federal leaders with the ability to not only escape a nuclear attack, but also monitor information and communicate with the rest of the government while on the move. The MERS units cost billions of dollars to develop and are packed with sophisticated technology. According to Cox News Service: “Sensitive radio, telephone, and satellite gear—much of it classified—is stored in custom-built trucks that resemble mobile bank vaults.… The mobile units can operate for a month without support. They include generators capable of powering a three-story airport terminal and a fuel tanker that can suck diesel fuel from whatever service stations survive the nuclear blast.” One truck carries a pop-up satellite dish and weighs 24 tons. Early models, however, are inundated with problems. When the first two MERS prototypes are tested in 1984, one gets wedged beneath a highway overpass because it is too tall, while the other causes a road to collapse because it is too heavy. There are also technical flaws. The communication system at the heart of the Continuity of Government program does not function properly from late 1985 until at least December 1990 (see Late 1985 and December 1990). Despite the complications, FEMA eventually constructs 300 MERS vehicles and stations them at secure facilities in Washington State, Massachusetts, Denver, southern Georgia, and rural Texas. Most of the MERS vehicles are used rarely, if ever. “Billions of dollars were spent on such equipment, much of which is now gathering dust in Army depots,” the New York Times reports in 1994. [Emerson, 8/7/1989; Cox News Service, 2/22/1993; New York Times, 4/18/1994]

Entity Tags: Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Preparedness Directorate

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Officials from the National Program Office (NPO), responsible for the highly classified Continuity of Government program, fake an exercise in front of congressional leaders in order to cover up equipment failures. At a secret site near Great Falls, Montana, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-MA) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-WV) gather with other key officials to witness the first major test of a new post-nuclear communication system. The high-tech system, worth millions of dollars, is meant to provide government leaders with the ability to communicate during and after a nuclear war. Much of the equipment, however, was purchased from separate contractors and is technically incompatible. The multi-million dollar system does not function properly, but NPO officials rig the exercise, paving the way for additional funding. As one participant will later explain: “At one point information was supposed to be sent out, and even though lights were blinking and the wheels were turning, the message was being sent by payphone about a block and a half from the site where the exercise was taking place.… Millions of dollars worth of equipment failed to function correctly and 25 or 50 cents worth of change and a pay telephone got the message through.” The visiting congressmen, who are responsible for allocating funds for the project, are fooled into thinking the system is fully functional. Money will continue to flow into the shoddy equipment for years to come. Sources will tell CNN five years later that the system is still not working properly. “Very few people knew about the scam and because the program is so classified there was no one they could tell,” CNN will report in 1991. [CNN Special Assignment, 11/17/1991]

Entity Tags: Robert C. Byrd, Thomas Phillip ‘Tip’ O’Neill, Jr, National Program Office

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Longtime US Army intelligence officer Tom Golden, who is currently acting as a watchdog within the ultra-secretive Continuity of Government (COG) program (see January 1984), notifies the Army Inspector General’s Office of several instances of waste, fraud, and abuse within the highly classified COG project. Golden additionally speaks in confidence about his findings to the chief of the inspector general’s intelligence oversight division, Colonel Ned Bacheldor. Golden tells the Inspector General’s Office that contracts are being awarded based on personal relationships among military officials and company employees. He says government personnel have rotating careers at contracted companies and some are being hired at excessive rates for limited work. Golden says the multi-billion dollar communication system at the heart of the COG program does not function properly and is costing exorbitant amounts of money to fix, and alleges the problems are being covered up by military officials (see Late 1985 and December 1990). Golden reports a high-ranking officer within the COG program, Brigadier General Eugene Renzi, who was awarded a multimillion-dollar no-bid contract to the BETAC Corporation, which employed the general’s son. US News and World Report describes BETAC as a “consulting firm composed of former intelligence and communications specialists from the Pentagon.” Golden also notes the BETAC contract included $400-a-day consultant jobs for several COG officials, including one of Renzi’s aides. As a result of Golden’s report, two contracts will be found to be illegal and will be subsequently canceled. Renzi will also be reprimanded. The Army assures Golden his name will remain confidential, but his status as a whistleblower will be leaked weeks later by Bacheldor, who will soon leave the Inspector General’s Office to join the COG program. Golden will soon become the target of a retaliatory smear campaign led by members of the secret project, including Renzi and Bacheldor (see After July 1987). [Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/16/1990; Knight Ridder, 12/18/1990; CNN Special Assignment, 11/17/1991]

Entity Tags: Office of the Inspector General (US Army ), BETAC Corporation, Eugene Renzi, Ned Bacheldor, Tom Golden

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Hurricane Hugo, shortly before making landfall in South Carolina.Hurricane Hugo, shortly before making landfall in South Carolina. [Source: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,]The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is strongly criticized for not providing adequate relief to the victims of Hurricane Hugo, a Category 5 storm that hit near Charleston, South Carolina. The storm causes billions of dollars in damage, displaces tens of thousands, and leaves hundreds of thousands jobless and without power. After the storm passes, FEMA is slow to take action. The first FEMA relief office opens a full week after the storm hits. Once the agency moves in, red tape, minimal resources, and poor management bog down the relief efforts. Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) bluntly describes FEMA’s hierarchy as a “bunch of bureaucratic jackasses” that should just “get the hell out of the way.” Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. criticizes FEMA for not bringing enough people or resources to his city. The relief system established by FEMA, he says, “is not designed to cope immediately and urgently with a major disaster.” Robert Hoffman, the mayor of St. Stephen in Berkeley County, says: “I really had more faith in our government.… We’re in serious trouble if FEMA is going to be the [lead] organization in the event of a nuclear war.” Unbeknownst to most of the public and government, the majority of the disaster agency is preoccupied with developing plans for a nuclear doomsday as part of the highly classified Continuity of Government program (see April 1, 1979-Present). [Associated Press, 10/1/1989; Washington Post, 10/4/1989; National Weather Service, National Hurricane Center, 8/1/2005]

Entity Tags: Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ernest F. Hollings, Joseph P. Riley Jr.

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Despite several years of multi-million dollar investments, the high-tech communication system at the heart of the Continuity of Government program does not work properly. The system has been malfunctioning since it was first established. Officials from the National Program Office (NPO) faked the broken system’s first major test in 1985, successfully fooling the congressmen responsible for allocating funds for the project (see Late 1985). Five years later, federal agencies are still unable to “talk” to one another with the equipment. “It was like, ‘So what, we’ll catch up with it later,’” a former NPO official will tell CNN, “but later never came.” Sources familiar with the system say a lack of oversight has allowed problems within the Continuity of Government program to go unchecked and spiral out of control. [CNN Special Assignment, 11/17/1991]

Entity Tags: National Program Office

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Damage from Hurricane Andrew, in Dade County, Florida.Damage from Hurricane Andrew, in Dade County, Florida. [Source: Greenpeace]Approximately three years after facing harsh criticism for its response to Hurricane Hugo (see September-November 1989), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is denounced for not providing adequate relief in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. The storm, which devastates regions of southern Florida and Louisiana, claims dozens of lives, leaves up to a quarter million people temporarily homeless, and causes more than $26 billion in damage. [National Hurricane Center, 12/10/1993; National Hurricane Center, 8/1/2005] Nearly a week after Andrew passes, local officials and citizens in the hardest hit areas are still waiting for assistance from the federal government. Days after the storm, the New York Times reports it is still “unclear just who is in charge of the Federal relief effort.” [New York Times, 8/27/1982] “Blame for the government’s delayed response to Hurricane Andrew is being placed squarely at the feet of the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” the Associated Press reports. Even after FEMA moves in, relief is delayed by a lack of resources and bureaucratic red tape. [Associated Press, 8/29/1992] In some cases, the agency brings equipment designed for a nuclear war instead of basic supplies. When the city manager of Homestead, Florida, requests 100 hand-held radios, FEMA is only able to provide high-tech mobile command vehicles (see 1982-April 1994). As Cox News Service will later report: “FEMA sent high-tech vans, capable of sending encrypted, multi-frequency radio messages to military aircraft halfway around the world.… FEMA equipment could call in an air strike but Homestead never got its hand-held radios.” Franklin, Louisiana, which is reportedly “flattened” by the storm, is similarly offered a communications vehicle instead of basic relief. “They offered a mobile communications unit and I told them that was unacceptable,” says Representative Billy Tauzin (D-LA). Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) says the government’s response to the storm is “seen by many of Hurricane Andrew’s victims in Florida as a disaster itself.” Unbeknown to most of the public and government, FEMA is secretly preoccupied with preparations for a nuclear doomsday (see April 1, 1979-Present). [Associated Press, 8/29/1992; Cox News Service, 2/22/1993]

Entity Tags: W.J. (“Billy”) Tauzin, Barbara Mikulski, Federal Emergency Management Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Clinton administration reorganizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), shifting resources away from secret projects and into disaster relief programs. During the previous two administrations, FEMA’s resources were overwhelmingly geared towards the highly classified Continuity of Government program, meant to keep the government functioning in times of extreme national emergency (see April 1, 1979-Present). The changes to the disaster agency are prompted by strong criticism of FEMA’s response to Hurricane Andrew (see August-September 1992). The secret COG programs are scaled back, but not totally discontinued. The newly appointed director of FEMA, James Lee Witt, eliminates FEMA’s secretive National Preparedness Directorate and shifts its responsibilities to other sections of the disaster agency. FEMA’s budget shows a dramatic drop in funding for secret projects, from about $100 million in 1993 to only $7.5 million in 1994. “What [Director Witt has] done is put FEMA in an all-hazards approach and put it aboveboard,” says FEMA spokesperson Morrie Goodman. “There are, of course,” Goodman adds, “certain areas that can’t be discussed or even acknowledged. That’s just the nature of the beast.” Indeed, uncertainties remain regarding the true extent of FEMA’s reformation. As Mother Jones magazine notes, the reduced classified budget “reflects only a fragment of FEMA’s investment in doomsday preparations, given that many former projects have been redesignated as ‘dual-use’ responses for both natural disasters and national security emergencies.” According to Mother Jones, “much of the doomsday bureaucracy remains intact, parts of the fifth floor are still restricted, and there has been no concerted effort to declassify the underground command posts.” Government officials will claim in 1994 that the COG program is coming to a total end (see April 18, 1994), but FEMA will continue to pursue its secret agenda for years to come (see April 1, 1979-Present). [National Academy of Public Administration, 2/1993 pdf file; Gup and Aftergood, 1/1994; New York Times, 4/18/1994; Sylves, 5/1994]

Entity Tags: James Lee Witt, Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Preparedness Directorate, Clinton administration

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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