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 Agency."

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 these responsibilities.

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 security planning.


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 leaders.

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 "Rex 84."

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.

Inside the Shadow Government

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