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Secret of the US nuclear bunkers
2 March 2002
A shadow government has been living underground since September 11 in case Washington is wiped out
For the past six months, the US has had a shadow government in place against the possibility of a nuclear attack by terrorists, the White House confirmed yesterday.
About 100 senior civil servants were dispatched to two secret locations in the eastern United States after September 11 to ensure continuity of government in case Washington was wiped out. Rotating teams have remained there ever since.
The publicly disclosed element was that Vice-President Dick Cheney was reputedly in a "secure, undisclosed location", meeting President George Bush only rarely. It turns out that the Cheney plan was only part of a "continuity of operations plan" to keep the country running in any conceivable contingency.
The plan was first drawn up nearly half a century ago, during the Eisenhower administration, when the US was guarding against the possibility of a nuclear strike from the Soviet Union.
It was never activated until Mr Bush ordered it to be put into operation, hours after the attacks on New York and Washington. The existence of the shadow government was reported by the Washington Post yesterday after the paper did a deal with the administration that it would not disclose the location of the sites.
Some officials have spent up to three of the past six months hidden away, and it represents a considerable security achievement that their absence has not become public until now, though the Guardian reported the existence of the outline plans on September 12. Those involved were told to tell their families only that they were "on a business trip".
Much of their time has been spent reviewing the emergency system, grown creaky through passage of time and lack of use, and bringing it up to date. They have apparently been living and working underground, unable to go outside except when being taken by helicopter to and from the sites.
The government is believed to have about 40 underground shelters at various places in the US, many built into mountainsides within about 100 miles of Washington.
Some of the sites are known to have multiple chambers, up to 50ft wide and 100ft high that could be used for anything up to and including a base for an emergency air force.
One is Mount Weather in Virginia, where congressional leaders - including the House Speaker, Dennis Hastert, third in line to the presidency - were taken in the confused hours following the attacks.
It is described as a "small city", built into granite, behind a 5ft thick door guarding vast quantities of office space, room to store the nation's art treasures, sleeping accommodation for several thousand people, a private reservoir, and a crematorium.
Another is Raven Rock in Pennsylvania, close to the presidential retreat at Camp David, which is thought to have been used by the Pentagon as its own back-up location. It has not been revealed whether these are the two sites involved in this operation.
"We take this issue extraordinarily seriously, and are committed to doing as thorough a job as possible to ensure the ongoing operations of the federal government," Joseph Hagin, the president's deputy chief of staff, told the Post. "In the case of the use of a weapon of mass destruction, the federal government would be able to do its job and continue to provide key services and respond."
Every major government department is represented at the sites, with instructions to maintain emergency services in the short term and then re-form the government in the long term.
There has been some recent debate about the US's inadequate rules of presidential succession. There are only 17 people in line to the presidency (the vice-president, the House Speaker, the president pro tempore of the Senate and the 14 members of the cabinet) then it peters out.
This contrasts with the infinite line of succession to the British monarchy. Should all be killed or incapacitated - not inconceivable under the doomsday scenario envisaged by those in the shelters - it is not publicly known who might give the orders.
Matthew Engel, Washington