NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Just two years ago, George Bush rode into the White House on the wings of a broad right-wing coalition that sought above all else to curtail the force and reach of the federal government so as to return power to the states. Now these same right-wingers are using the power of that federal government to ride roughshod over the very America they claimed to represent.
They've even gone so far as to reveal, after the fact, the establishment of a secret shadow government under the Continuity of Operations Plan. Bush not only failed to tell congressional leaders he was setting up an alternative command, but he also left Congress entirely out of it. Currently, about 100 civilian personnel rotate on 24-hour duty in secret bunkers.
Now, it turns out, the bunkers held in readiness for officials who flee Washington, D.C., in case of an attack aren't so secret after all. Though The Washington Post last week delicately avoided mentioning the sites by name in deference to the White House, the paper gave a fairly full description of them in 1992.
First among the facilities listed in that article is Mount Weather, some 50 miles from Washington in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and called the "Special Facility," it was then slated to be HQ for the president, cabinet heads and other top officials. It has a health clinic, fresh water supplies, a dorm, a cafeteria and communication posts. There's also a TV studio so the president can address the nation.
While still treated as some big secret, Mount Weather has achieved near mythic status in Washington since the Cold War and is assumed to have been on the Soviet priority-target list. In 1974, a TWA plane crashed into the mountain, resulting in a barrage of publicity. And tourists who paused to stare at the entrance found themselves being carefully scrutinized by government agents.
Also in Virginia, the Federal Reserve has constructed a big hidden center at Culpeper so it can keep the banks running and be in a position to print money.
Another underground hideout, Site R, is located at Raven Rock Mountain, six miles north of the presidential retreat at Camp David and near Fort Ritchie on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. Better known as the "underground Pentagon," it is meant to be an HQ for a communications center and the military command (or what's left of it after a nuclear devastation of Washington). In addition to computers and communications gear, the Post reported, the facility contains a barbershop, dental and medical clinics, a fresh water reservoir, and a chapel.
According to one former federal civil servant, Site R originally was intended as an underground location for the Supreme Court and Congress. "Yes, I was given military orders to Site R. I never went," the servant said. "The guy I was relieving told me it's like being the manager of the Holiday Inn—you have to make sure the beds are made. He said I would be seeing members of the Supreme Court, cabinet officials, congressmen and maybe even the president."
Even more than Mount Weather, Site R has been the center of various rumors. These include talk that a squadron of fighters is stationed underground and that the government is controlling the weather. According to one story, the government would protect Site R by somehow seeding a dense radioactive cloud that would float above it. The government denied all of this.
Out West, the Cheyenne Mountain facility at Colorado Springs, Colorado, would be the HQ for the North American Aerospace Defense Command. NORAD was created to watch for impending attacks, but this fabled site has lately become a tourist attraction.
News that Bush was constructing a secret government—minus Congress—to run the country in times of crisis generated mild opposition on Capitol Hill, where according to one congressman, members are still "scared" of getting killed in an attack and not interested in much of anything except the quickest emergency exit. They are also interested in getting re-elected and have been hesitant to support Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who may want to run for the presidency himself, in his recent diplomatic distancing from Bush.
Daschle has been one of the few politicians willing to openly criticize the administration's ill-defined, expanding war on terror. On March 1, he gently reminded the president, "Congress has a constitutional responsibility to ask questions. We are not a rubber stamp to the president or to anybody else. We must do what the Constitution and what our best judgment requires." And he also said, "I don't think in some cases we've been adequately consulted. . . . If we don't think we're being adequately consulted, I think we have to speak out."
Daschle's remarks apparently were prompted by the minence grise of the Senate, West Virginia's Robert Byrd, a Democrat who himself asked the president for a "plan" of just what he was doing. More than anyone else, Byrd sets the parameters of debate.
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Last weekend, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who also is testing the waters for a presidential run by appearing in New Hampshire and denying he has any interest in being president, opined in typical congressional obscurantist rhetoric, "In a democracy, we have a special obligation to talk to one another and keep everybody on the same page. It takes a lot of work. In a dictatorship, you don't have to talk to anybody; you just make the decision. This is not a dictatorship." This statement might be or might not be interpreted as support for Daschle.
But Daschle won definitive and important backing from within the Bush camp in the form of Chuck Hagel, the Republican Nebraska senator who was a supporter of George Bush on Capitol Hill when no one else would take him seriously. "I think Senator Daschle may have used a bit of a blunt object in some of his language, but the foundational part of his question was appropriate, and I don't think there's any question that Senator Daschle supports the president," Hagel said. "I think it is an issue where both Democrats and Republicans support this president in our efforts, but at the same time, we need to ask questions and bring some perspective and balance to it all."
Among the mavericks on the Democratic backbench, talk against the war is just getting started. Jesse Jackson Jr., a rising star, said he has not opposed the war and has "mostly reservations, but some opposition." Jackson, for example, supports monitoring and containing Saddam Hussein, not overthrowing him: "I don't believe that the U.S. threat to overthrow a country's leader will be tolerated by civilized people." And he came down hard against the shadow government, saying, "There is no such thing in the Constitution. There are three branches of government. If the administration is concerned with contingencies, they must be democratically planned. If they want to change the structure, it is a constitutional issue. Then the government must have a 28th amendment."
Additional reporting by Gabrielle Jackson, Meritxell Mir and Michael Ridley.