Newsday - White House Urged to Share its Post-Disaster Plan
BY CAROL EISENBERG
It's the stuff of nightmares: an attack on the nation's capital that would take out whole swaths of official Washington.
In response to a presidential directive, White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend will deliver a plan this week on how the executive branch would carry on after a natural disaster or a catastrophic strike, say by terrorists armed with a nuclear weapon.
But the White House's refusal to share the classified portion with the House Homeland Security Committee, even in closed briefings, has angered lawmakers and spurred rants on the Internet about what one blogger warns is "a White House coup to be implemented by Homeland Security at presidential decree."
Experts say the plan, due Thursday, is extraordinarily sensitive since if terrorists knew where leaders planned to carry on the government, they might target those sites. Every administration since 1947 has drawn up such worst-case plans - and kept them secret - but analysts say that planning is complicated today by the likelihood there would be no prior notice of an attack.
"As a result of the asymmetric threat environment ... all continuity planning shall be based on the assumption that no such warning will be received," said a May 9 presidential directive. "Emphasis will be placed upon geographic dispersion of leadership, staff, and infrastructure in order to increase survivability and maintain uninterrupted government functions."
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel insisted the new blueprint is not a power grab by the president, but a way to keep the government intact. Its focus is only on agencies in the executive branch, he said. Moreover, the White House planned to share its contents with senior congressional leaders, as had been done by prior administrations.
But Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a member of the Homeland Security Committee, said he could not fulfill his oversight responsibilities without being able to review the plan in its entirety. And given the government's track record on Hurricane Katrina, he said, he wasn't inclined to give it a pass.
"I can see only three reasons for their refusal," he said. "One is they don't really have a plan and, therefore, there's nothing to share," he said. "The second is they have developed a plan with dubious or unlawful provisions. The third is that this is part of the paranoid, supersecret mentality which is quite common with this administration."
Republican hopes for accord
Even Republicans on the committee say they favor more access.
"I certainly understand the need for secrecy," said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), the ranking Republican member. "But I would hope we could work out an understanding so that the committees on homeland security can carry out their responsibilities."
Experts on both government and emergency planning acknowledge that continuity plans are sensitive, but said they also need to be vetted.
"While you don't want these plans floating about in public, I think it's fair there be some check on the executive branch to make sure the planning is done in a careful and realistic way," said Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland. "I've seen plans that are very good and I've seen plans that are slipshod."
Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington noted that Congress has clear oversight.
"Is there information that should be kept secret? I'm sure there is," he said. "During the Cold War era, when a congressional bunker was in place down at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, most members of Congress didn't know it existed. The only ones who knew were the leaders.
"There's a balance to strike, but there are plenty of examples of how you might do that, for instance, with the classified briefings given to the intelligence committees."
But the debate over where that balance lies is contentious, especially at a time when a Democratically controlled Congress is increasingly at loggerheads with a lame-duck Republican president.
Policy predates Bush, aide says
Townsend, who is continuity coordinator, argues that the balance struck by this administration is no different than that of its predecessors.
"It has long been the policy of the executive branch - predating the current administration - to treat specific continuity operational details as extremely sensitive," she wrote Aug. 1 to committee members. "Traditionally, the executive branch has briefed the most senior congressional leadership."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not return calls about whether she had been consulted.
Whether or not the top leaders are in the loop, however, does not get the White House off the hook with its direct congressional overseers, said Michael German, policy counsel for the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The idea that the executive branch has to give information only to certain members of Congress is not true," he said.
But German also dismissed the notion that the plan might serve as a framework for a presidential power play.
"The president can write a directive that he's the king starting tomorrow, but it doesn't mean anything," he said. "The law is still the law, and it's controlling in an emergency, regardless of his plan."
Several analysts noted, moreover, that members of Congress have not addressed their own continuity issues nearly six years after the 9/11 attacks.
"If terrorists manage to set off a suitcase nuclear bomb while Congress is in session, and wiped out the majority of members, we would be left without a Congress for months," Ornstein said. "I don't find that acceptable."