When most people think of FEMA, they think of its criminally inept handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005. But that was because FEMA is really intended to handle different sorts of “emergencies” in very different ways. In the 1998 film The X-Files: Fight The Future, the character of scientist Dr. Al Kurtzweil says to David Duchovny’s Agent Mulder: “Are you familiar with FEMA? What the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s real power is? FEMA allows the White House to suspend constitutional government upon declaration of a national emergency. Think about that, Agent Mulder!”
The X-Files movie got it a little bit wrong: FEMA doesn’t allow the White House to suspend constitutional government upon declaration of a national emergency; the President already has the ability to declare a state of national emergency and greatly restrict civil liberties and constitutional government under the provisions National Security Act of 1947. But if the President does declare such a national emergency, it will be FEMA that will be largely responsible for carrying out the President’s order.
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The Federal Emergency Management Agency is arguably the scariest agency in the whole federal government. Its public face is that of a relief agency for natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. However, the bulk of its budget is devoted to national security programs and it operates several programs that are highly classified. Because of its emphasis on classified national security matters, FEMA is largely unprepared to respond to natural disasters. For example, the Washington Post reported that the city manager of Homestead, Florida requested that FEMA send 100 handheld radios to assist in communications in the aftermath of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. Instead, FEMA sent several high-tech vans capable of encrypted communications with military aircraft on the other side of the world.
This situation is not really surprising, because FEMA is an outgrowth of the 1950s Civil Defense programs against nuclear attack. FEMA was not created by an act of Congress, but instead by executive order 12148 issued on July 20, 1979 by President Carter. His order consolidated the various provisions of the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950, the National Security Act of 1947, the Defense Production Act of 1950, the Disaster Relief Act of 1970, the Strategic and Critical Materials Stockpiling Act, and several other emergency acts into a single umbrella agency, FEMA.
The relatively benign names of most of the acts consolidated under FEMA hide their truly radical nature when the president proclaims a national emergency. For example, the Act of August 29, 1916, empowers the president to take possession of any transportation system (including privately owned vehicles) during a national emergency. The Defense Production Act of 1950 allows the president to take control of virtually the entire U.S. economic system in a national emergency and convert it to a highly regulated command economy. Under this act, wages and prices could be fixed and various products rationed to the public (as happened in World War II). And the National Security Act of 1947, among many other things, created the National Security Agency and its massive eavesdropping and surveillance capabilities. Carter’s executive order also incorporates various executive orders into FEMA, such as those allowing, if a national emergency is declared by the president, for control of all communication media, relocation of segments of the population, and control of economic and financial activity.
And just who decides what constitutes a “national emergency”? The answer is the President, who has almost unlimited discretion in deciding what constitutes a national emergency. (For example, President Richard Nixon declared a national emergency in 1971 and imposed wage and price controls because he felt the U.S. balance of payments deficit was too high). Once the President has declared a national emergency, Congress can not vote to override the declaration until six months have passed.
A major function of FEMA is administration of the Continuity of Government (COG) program. It operates the various COG centers and facilities around the country, including the now legendary Mount Weather facility in Virginia. One of FEMA’s acknowledged tasks is the operation of various COG centers that would house the president and other government officials in the event of a catastrophic event, such as an atomic or biological attack against the United States, a major natural disaster, or a civil insurrection or disturbance so widespread that it would be impossible to carry on government functions from Washington. As a report in the November 18, 1991 New York Times stated, “Acting outside the Constitution in the early 1980s, a secret federal agency [FEMA] established a line of succession to the presidency to assure continued government in the event of a devastating nuclear attack, current and former United States officials said today. The program was called ‘Continuity of Government.’ In the words of a recent report by the Fund for Constitutional Government, ‘succession or succession-by-designation would be implemented by unknown and perhaps unelected persons who would pick three potential successor presidents in advance of an emergency. These potential successors to the Oval Office may not be elected, and they are not confirmed by Congress.’”
The COG program had its roots in a nuclear-age possibility that could not have been anticipated when the Constitution was drafted what would happen if the entire leadership of the federal government was wiped out at once? Suppose a nuclear device is exploded in Washington during the President’s annual State of the Union address and the President, Vice President, various Cabinet secretaries, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court are all instantly vaporized. Who would be in charge if everyone in the entire line of presidential succession specified in the Constitution got killed?
That is a problem the U.S. has had to consider ever since the development of atomic missiles in the 1950s made that a real possibility. The September 11 attacks actually forced FEMA to implement some of those plans. While the exact contingency plans are still tightly guarded secrets, several sources indicate that FEMA maintains “government in waiting” groups at COG facilities in California, Maryland, and Virginia (see listings for those states). The members of these groups, secretly appointed by the president, would have the rank and perform the duties of various Cabinet officers if a national emergency were declared and those Cabinet officers were killed or otherwise unable to perform their duties. For example, there is a “standby” Secretary of State in these groups; if the actual Secretary of State were killed or incapacitated during a national emergency, this person would assume the duties of that office when so directed by the President.
And that takes us back to our original question: what happens if the President and all Constitutional successors were killed in a sudden attack or other disaster? Various sources indicate that FEMA maintains an “Office of the Presidency” at Mount Weather and possibly other FEMA facilities. If the executive branch of government were suddenly and catastrophically eliminated, a person (or persons) on a list of “standby presidents” would be transported to the nearest FEMA COG facility and act as the chief executive of the United States until such time as normal Constitutional government could be restored.
Who are these “standby presidents”? A 1992 CNN report on FEMA said Howard Baker, Richard Helms, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, James Schlesinger, Richard Thornberg, Ed Meese, Tip O’Neill, and Dick Cheney (who would eventually become Vice President) all served in that role at different times.
Of course, none of this can be definitely confirmed. Any executive orders or presidential directives covering such events would be classified at the highest levels. All we can be certain of, however, is that plans must be in place for such catastrophic events and have probably been in place since the late 1940s.
When attention was focused on FEMA’s budget in the wake of its hapless performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, it was discovered that it was spending 12 times more on “black” national security programs than it was on disaster relief. In the 1982-1992 period, FEMA budgeted $243 million for disaster relief but budgeted $2.9 billion for “black” and classified operations. While that spending ratio dropped during the Clinton years, FEMA still spends the bulk of its budget on classified programs and the proportion has increased since the September 11 attacks.
FEMA and Rex84: During the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings, the following exchange took place between Representative Jack Brooks of Texas, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, and Brendan Sullivan, attorney for Oliver North, during North’s testimony before Congress:
REPRESENTATIVE BROOKS: Colonel North, in your work at the NSC, were you not assigned, at one time, to work on plans for continuity of government in the event of a major disaster?
BRENDAN SULLIVAN: Mister Chairman?
SENATOR INOUYE: I believe that question touches upon a highly sensitive and classified area so I request that you not touch on that.
REPRESENTATIVE BROOKS: I was particularly concerned, Mister Chairman, because I read in Miami papers, and several others, that there had been a plan developed by that same agency, a contingency plan in the event of emergency, that would suspend the American constitution. And I was deeply concerned about it and wondered if that was the area in which he had worked. I believe that it was and I wanted to get his confirmation.
SENATOR INOUYE: May I most respectfully request that this matter not be touched upon at this stage. If we wish to get into this, I’m certain arrangements can be made for an executive session.
Brooks, a crusty, no-nonsense Democrat from Texas, had touched upon what may have been the most incredible, but least discussed, aspects of the entire Iran-Contra investigations: the expansion of FEMA’s mandate during the Reagan administration to include capabilities to detain large number of American citizens, similar to the internment of Japanese American citizens in World War II. This was planned during a military planning exercise known as Readiness Exercise 1984, or “Rex84.”
Rex84 came about in April 1984, when President Reagan signed Presidential Directive 54. This authorized FEMA to conduct a simulation of a “state of domestic national emergency” that would be declared, under the rules of the simulation, as a result of a U.S. military operation in Central America. Rex84 was conducted on the fifth floor of the FEMA building in Washington under conditions of especially heavy security; new metal security doors were installed on that floor and special identification badges were required of all participants.
The first reports about Rex84 appeared in the Miami Herald on July 5, 1987 (this is the report referred to by Representative Brooks). According to the Herald, the plan the Rex84 group came up with called for the detention of up to 400,000 undocumented immigrants in internment centers at military bases around the country. (These would eventually become known as the “Rex84 camps.) U.S. military forces, including the National Guard, would be deployed for domestic law enforcement, and state and local military commanders would be appointed to assume control of state and local governments. Rex84 also provided for suspension of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution for the duration of the national emergency.
Oliver North was responsible for drawing up the Rex84 plan but a faction within the Rex84 group, led by Attorney General William French Smith, vehemently opposed him. As Smith wrote in August 1984 to National Security Council chairman Robert McFarlane, “I believe the role assigned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the revised Executive Order exceeds its proper function as a coordinating agency for emergency preparedness. . . This department [Department of Justice] and others have repeatedly raised serious policy and legal objections to the creation of an ‘emergency czar’ role for FEMA.” It is believed that Smith’s opposition was instrumental in convincing President Reagan not to issue new executive orders that would have made it possible to implement a scenario like that described in Rex84.
However, it was also reported that 22 new executive orders were drafted that would create the framework for making Rex84 a reality, and these orders are kept in readiness for a future President’s signature in case of a national emergency.
One task of the Rex84 exercise was to determine what types of “national emergency” would be of sufficient severity to cause the majority of American people to accept even a temporary suspension of normal Constitutional government. Among the situations identified by the Rex84 group as meeting that criterion would be a nuclear attack, imminent threat of nuclear war, massive terrorist attacks in the United States, simultaneous rioting in major American cities, a widespread natural or environmental disaster, and, interestingly, a severe economic depression that would leave millions unemployed and without adequate financial resources.
Of course, Rex84 was just a planning exercise. Relax.
Key Facilities: FEMA owns 300 Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) vehicles. These specially equipped, nuclear-hardened vans are located throughout the United States and are designed to shuttle the president and other high government officials around the country in the event of an emergency and deliver them to COG facilities. These are the same vehicles that so bewildered and exasperated the city manager of Homestead, Florida.
FEMA is also reported to maintain databases of individuals to be detained in the event of a national emergency. The databases are believed to vary according to the cause and nature of the emergency. For example, numerous prominent black leaders and black sympathizers could be interned if urban rioting by blacks triggered a declaration of national emergency. (I suppose the names of wiseass authors of books spilling the beans about FEMA could be in some of those databases as well, but I prefer not to think about that possibility.)
Secret Stuff: Has there ever been a time when a president was ready to declare a national emergency and unleash FEMA? It appears there have been three such cases where that was a serious possibility.
One was in 1990 during the Gulf War. There have been numerous reports that FEMA was in “standby mode” in case there were incidents of domestic terrorism; unconfirmed rumors say plans were in place to intern nationals of various Arab nations and members of groups deemed sympathetic to Iraqi causes. The second was in 1992 during the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King trial verdict. As the rioting entered its third day and began to spill out of the predominantly black areas of Los Angeles, reports claim there was pressure on President Bush to declare martial law in Los Angeles and to send federal troops into Los Angeles. These reports also say that FEMA would have been activated if the rioting had broken out in other cities and had reached the scope and intensity of the Los Angeles riots.
It is now widely known FEMA was very active in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including the movement of numerous high-ranking government officials to COG facilities. It is reasonable to assume the scope of FEMA’s mission and capabilities have been greatly increased in the aftermath of the attacks and that it could be activated in the event of future terrorist acts on the scale of September 11.
Getting a Look Inside: FEMA’s sites currently offer no public tours. When they want you to see the inside of any of their facilities, they’ll know where to find you.
Listening In: If you have a shortwave radio capable of receiving upper sideband (USB) transmissions, try listening to 10493 kHz during the daytime and to 5211 kHz at night. These are the common shortwave frequencies used by FEMA facilities across the country for their “national emergency coordination network,” and they often have on-the-air drills and exercises. Listen for the call sign WGY912 that’s the FEMA headquarters station.
Getting There: FEMA’s headquarters is at 500 C Street SW in Washington.