from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2002, Issue No. 17
March 4, 2002


Executive branch officials have been deployed to bunkers outside of Washington to preserve "continuity of operations" in the event of an attack on the nation's capital, according to an item in U.S. News and World Report.

"Top government officials implemented the continuity plan as soon as the scope of the [September 11 attacks] became clear," the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.

Big news? Both of those stories were published last October. But if a tree falls in the forest, and it is not reported in the Washington Post or the New York Times, it evidently doesn't make a sound.

In contrast, the Washington Post's in-depth March 1 story on the same subject reverberated powerfully throughout the media universe. See "Shadow Government Is at Work in Secret" by Barton Gellman and Susan Schmidt:

While emergency preparedness is unobjectionable, the Post report prompted questions about exactly what a "shadow government" does day in and day out, under what circumstances it would come to power, and who had been informed about it.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said that he had not been notified of the "shadow government" and called it "a pretty profound illustration" of the Bush Administration's tendency to withhold vital information from Congress.

From a secrecy policy point of view, one of the most interesting features of the story is that "The Washington Post agreed to a White House request not to ... identify the two principal locations of the shadow government."

The basis for this decision was not spelled out, and the justification for it is not entirely clear. The number of existing continuity of government facilities within a helicopter ride's distance from Washington is small and well known, having been documented in many sources, including by the Washington Post itself.

Nevertheless, the Post action illustrates the ability of the mainstream media, which has sometimes been doubted, to exercise self-discipline in withholding information that it believes to be sensitive. Other media outlets have so far followed the Post's lead in this regard, with the partial exception of the New York Post, which published a photograph of the front of one of the unidentified facilities.

In an online story today, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz boasted of his paper's discretion in agreeing not to disclose the secret locations of the "shadow government" and took a jab at the New York Post for publishing its photograph. See "Press Ethics in Shadows":

Kurtz proudly insisted that the Washington Post "broke the story" of the shadow government.

But U.S. News and World Report disputed that claim this week, reprinting its October 29 Washington Whispers item on the subject:

The earliest version of the story was Sabrina Eaton's "Interior officials join Cheney in mountain hideaways" in the October 17 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which is which is linked from this page:

and which is also reposted here:


The Washington Post provided only a sketchy account of U.S. policy governing emergency continuity of operations, noting that most of the relevant current documentation is classified.

President Reagan's executive order 12656 "is a precursor to documents outlining the contingency plans in greater detail, which have not been made public," the Post reported on March 2. See that 1988 Reagan executive order here:

In fact, however, there is a good deal more (and more recent) public information about this matter than the Post indicated.

To begin with, it was President Clinton's 1998 Presidential Decision Directive 67 which, until most recently, established the framework for continuity of operations planning. Although the text of this Directive has not been released, its contents are summarized here:

Further, in response to PDD 67, the Federal Emergency Management Agency prepared a 1999 Federal Preparedness Circular (FPC-65) that provides guidance to executive branch agencies for use in planning for the continuity of operations.

See the text of that FEMA memo on "Federal Executive Branch Continuity of Operations (COOP)" here:

One of the requirements set forth by FEMA is the establishment of an "order of succession" for each agency, identifying the sequence of personnel who would assume leadership of the agency in the event of emergency.

In late December, President Bush issued an initially puzzling series of executive orders governing the order of succession at eight agencies. See:


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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