The White House has set up a shadow government of about 100 senior civilian managers who live and work secretly outside Washington. This is the first time the ?Continuity Operations Plan? to ensure survival of federal rule after an attack on the nation?s capital has been activated.

The back-up government has been put in place in case al-Quada is able to bring a portable nuclear weapon into the U.S. Intelligence operators say they have no specific knowledge of such a weapon, but the risk is great enough to justify setting up the shadow government.

It was quickly deployed in the first hours after the September 11 attacks and will stay in place indefinitely. Within hours of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, military helicopters lifted off with the first wave of evacuated officials. The Bush administration thought the move would be a temporary precaution that lasted only a few days, but further assessment of the terrorist risk them to implement the program as a permanent feature.

Since then, high-ranking officials representing their departments have been rotating in and out of the assignment at one of two fortified locations along the East Coast. The two sites make use of local geological features to render them highly secure. They are well stocked with food, water, medicine and other consumable supplies, and can generate their own power.

But the facilities are showing their age. The first arrivals found that the computers were ?several generations? behind current models and incapable of connecting to current government databases. There were far too few phone lines. Not many work areas had secure audio and video links to the rest of government. Substantial upgrades have been made.

Officials who are activated call it ?bunker duty,? since they live and work underground 24 hours a day. They are not permitted to take their families, and under penalty of prosecution they can?t tell anyone where they?re going or why. ?They?re on a ?business trip,? that?s all,? says one official. Most personnel are replaced every 90 days.

The civilians in the bunkers usually number 70 to 150. This number ?fluctuates based on intelligence? about terrorist threats, according to a senior official involved in managing the program. Personnel come from every Cabinet department and from some independent agencies. Its mission, in the event of a disabling blow to Washington, would be to prevent the collapse of essential government functions.

?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,? says Joseph W. Hagin, White House deputy chief of staff. ?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.?

The absence of Vice President Cheney from Washington for much of the past five months is part of this plan. Cheney?s survival ensures constitutional succession in case something happens to the President, one official says, but ?he can’t run the country by himself.?

The COG, or ?continuity of government? group would try to prevent disruptions of the nation?s food and water supplies, transportation links, energy and telecommunications networks, public health and civil order. It would eventually begin to recreate the federal government.

Only the executive branch is represented in the full-time shadow administration. The other branches of constitutional government, Congress and the judiciary, have separate continuity plans but do not maintain a 24-hour presence in fortified facilities. The military chain of command has long maintained redundant centers of communication and control that are protected against thermonuclear blasts. The headquarters of U.S. Space Command is inside the Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, and the U.S. Strategic Command has a comparable facility under Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

It seems as if the Republicans know more about this shadow government than the Democrats. In her Sunday, March 3 New York Times column, Maureen Dowd quotes Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who says, ?We [Democrats] have not been informed at all about the role of the shadow government or its whereabouts or what particular responsibilities they have and when they would kick in.?

Without a backup command structure outside Washington, one official says, a nuclear detonation in the capital ?would be ?game over.??

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