FEMA: Child of the Cold War
excerpted from the book
Inside the Shadow Government
National Emergencies and
the Cult of Secrecy
by Harry Helms
Feral House, 2003, paper
President Jimmy Carter created the Federal
Emergency Management Agency with Executive Order 12148 on July
20, 1979 (it is Appendix C). According to FEMA's official history
of itself, the new agency "absorbed the Federal Insurance
Administration, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration,
the National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program, the
Federal Preparedness Agency of the General Services Administration,
and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration activities
from HUD." Almost as an afterthought, the FEMA web site adds,
"Civil defense responsibilities were also transferred to
the new agency from the Defense Department's Defense Civil Preparedness
F MA understandably wishes to downplay
its having absorbed the tasks of this last agency. "Defense
Civil Preparedness Agency" was the final name for the Office
of Civil and Defense Mobilization created after World War II with
a mandate to plan America's domestic responses to nuclear war.
The resulting plans covered relocation of key government leaders
to secure shelter, relocation of civilians, control of all aspects
of the economy, control of the civilian population in case of
panic or riots, control of all communications media and transportation
systems, and detention of groups of civilians to be designated-in
short, plans for control of nearly every aspect of life in the
United States if nuclear war threatened or occurred. FEMA assumed
Some insight into these planning efforts
appeared in the December 1998 Reason magazine, where Jodie Allen,
former editor of the "Outlook" section of the Washington
Post, wrote of his experiences in the 1960s as a planner with
FEMA's predecessor agencies. As an example of fine detail in the
planning, Allen described calculating livestock breeding rates
achieved by different strategies in different scenarios, including
attacks mostly by air explosions of nuclear bombs (lighter fallout)
and mostly by ground explosions (heavier fallout). (The best strategy
he discovered was to reduce herds to the sustainable minimum proportion
of males, to conserve feed.) While Allen's article said that many
claims about FEMA are "preposterous" and that the agency's
aims were "ultimately benign," he did admit, "Though
it didn't occur to me much at the time. we were indeed planning
to 'take over' the country, in a manner of speaking."
Just exactly what FEMA and its predecessor
agencies planned for America in the event of a nuclear attack
remains classified. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, a
substantial portion of FEMA's budget was not only classified but
also dwarfed spending for such "non-national" disasters
as earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. A 1992 study by the Cox
Newspapers Group found that during 1982-1992 FEMA's budgets included
only $243 million for disaster relief but $2.9 billion for "black"
and classified operations. The Cox study also estimated that one-third
of FEMA's employees during that period worked on classified projects.
Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, much of FEMA's budget
remained "black"; in 1993, for example, approximately
27% of FEMA's budget was for classified projects.
The imbalance of spending left FEMA poorly
prepared for natural disasters, a shortcoming dramatically illustrated
in August 1992, when Hurricane Andrew smashed into south Florida
and caused more damage than any other natural disaster in American
history. The city manager of Homestead, an especially hard-hit
city south of Miami, asked to borrow about one hundred hand-held
radios from FEMA to replace the destroyed radio system of Homestead's
police and fire departments. It turned out that FEMA did not have
any such portable radio systems in its inventory, but did have-and
sent-several radiation-resistant vans with communications gear
capable of sending encrypted messages via satellite or shortwave
radio to military aircraft or ships anywhere in the world. Ready
to spring to Florida's aid with this impressive technology, FEMA
was slow to provide such basics as temporary housing, water purification,
sanitation systems, and other critical supplies.
After the Hurricane Andrew fiasco, the
National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) reviewed FEMA's
operations and released a report early in the Clinton administration.
NAPA recommended spinning off as many of FEMA's classified and
national security operations as possible to the Department of
Defense. The Clinton administration quickly adopted this recommendation,
and in 1994 only $7.5 million of FEMA's budget was classified.
In 1995-1999 the FEMA budget more than
doubled. Critics charged that FEMA was turning into a dispensary
of political pork, and that inconveniences were too easily being
declared disasters. For example, before 1993 no snowstorms were
disasters, but in the next four years almost fifty snowstorms
counted as such, causing FEMA funds to flow to the affected localities.
In 1996, FEMA declared seventy-five disasters, roughly one for
every five days of the year.
FEMA resumed attack-response planning
in 1996 with the passage of the Defense Against Weapons of Mass
Destruction Act, which charged it with coordinating the federal
response to any terrorist (including biological, chemical, and
nuclear) attacks. This role increased during Clinton's second
term and more after September 11, 2001. Today FEMA has a presidential
mandate to coordinate its activities with the new Office of Homeland
Security and develop an "all hazards" approach to homeland
CONTINUITY OF GOVERNMENT (COG) PROGRAMS
Most of FEMA's classified spending has
probably been for continuity of government (COG) programs-that
is, activities deemed essential to survival of the nation in case
of nuclear attack, terrorist attack, or any other event that would
endanger the functioning of civil government or the lives of national
The Constitution is silent about COG,
probably because its authors did not conceive the possibility
of the sudden annihilation of most of the civilian government.
World War II, with the introduction of long-range missiles and
atomic weapons, made that possibility vivid, motivating two new
laws in 1947. The first extended the line of presidential succession
to the speaker of the House of Representatives, the president
pro tem of the Senate, and various members of the Cabinet. The
second, the lengthy National Security Act, created the Department
of the Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency and authorized
the creation of the National Security Agency. It also greatly
increased the government's ability to classify information (such
as items in the federal budget) for national security reasons.
Responding to the growing Soviet nuclear
threat, President Truman issued Executive Order 10346 on April
17, 1952, directing federal agencies to plan for the continuation
of their essential operations in case of nuclear war or other
catastrophe. The phrase "continuity of government" first
appeared in this order ...
... the expansion of FEMA's mandate during the I Reagan administration
to include capabilities to detain American citizens, as had happened
to Japanese-American citizens in World War II. This plan developed
during a military exercise known as Readiness Exercise 1984, or
In April, 1984 President Reagan signed
Presidential Directive 54, authorizing FEMA to conduct a simulation
of a "state of domestic national emergency" declared
as a result of a U.S. military operation in Central America...
The first reports about Rex 84 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 Rex 84 group produced 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
"Rex 84 camps.") If necessary, U.S. military forces,
including the National Guard, would be deployed for domestic law
enforcement, and state and local military commanders could assume
control of state and local governments if so directed by the president.
Rex 84 also included plans for suspension of the Bill of Rights
of the U.S. Constitution for the duration of the national emergency.
While undocumented immigrants were the only ones targeted for
detention during the Rex 84 exercise, the logistics of interning
American citizens would essentially be the same.
Oliver North was the principal author
of the Rex 84 plan ...
One aim of the Rex 84 exercise was to determine what types of
national emergency would be severe enough to persuade the majority
of Americans to accept even a temporary suspension of normal Constitutional
government. Among the severe enough situations identified by the
Rex 84 group were 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 a devastating economic depression.
So is there a current plan based upon
the lessons learned during Rex 84 waiting to be put into effect
with a presidential signature? We don't know, but in the wake
of the September 11 attacks such a possibility must be taken seriously.
the Shadow Government