November/December 2001
Vol. 57, No. 6, pp. 50-51

This is not a test

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the U.S. government implemented emergency plans that until then had been envisioned for use only in the event of an all-out nuclear war.

The most dramatic of these was the decision by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the Federal Aviation Administration to ground all non-military aircraft in U.S. airspace (or in transit to the United States). At 9:25 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, all aircraft nationwide not already in the air were grounded, and those in the air were ordered to return to where the flight originated or to land at a nearby airport. By 2:07 p.m., all domestic aircraft were on the ground and by 5:30 p.m., all international flights were either on U.S. or Canadian soil. All commercial flights remained grounded until September 13, and significant restrictions on small, general aviation aircraft remained in place at the time this issue went to press.

The plan under which this order was implemented is known as Security Control of Air Traffic and Navigation Aids, or Scatana. Developed in the 1960s, Scatana was originally intended to clear the skies following confirmed warnings of an attack by the Soviet Union. This would have provided unrestricted airspace for U.S. bomber aircraft and missiles, as well as air defense interceptor aircraft, emergency airborne command posts, and associated support aircraft like refueling tankers. Until September 11, 2001, Scatana had never been fully implemented, although it was partially activated by accident during a 1979 false alarm at NORAD.

According to Defense Week, NORAD issued a "notice to airmen" implementing a modified version of Scatana approximately five hours after American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Although all civilian aircraft were grounded, ground navigation aids were not turned off (as they would have been during a nuclear attack), allowing airliners to safely navigate to their new and unexpected destinations.

Also activated in full for the first time on September 11 were plans for ensuring "Continuity of Government," or CoG. Shortly after watching the attacks in New York City on a television in his White House office, Vice President Dick Cheney was evacuated by the Secret Service to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC), a hardened bunker buried beneath the East Wing of the White House. Once there (along with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, and a few other staff members), Cheney used a secure telephone to contact President George W. Bush, who was in Sarasota, Florida, visiting a school. As Cheney told Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press on September 16, in his conversation with the president he "strongly urge[d] him to delay his return" because of fears that Washington, D.C. was going to be attacked (those fears were compounded by a telephone call to the Secret Service indicating that Air Force One was an intended target).

Bush subsequently boarded Air Force One and took to the air as officials scrambled to ascertain what was happening. At one point, the Secret Service considered sending him to NORAD’s headquarters inside Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, Colorado. After touching down briefly at Barksdale Air Force Base near Bossier City, Louisiana (site of the U.S. Strategic Command’s alternate underground command post), to deliver a hastily prepared statement, the president headed to Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska, communicating with Cheney, military leaders, and the National Security Council via secure teleconference and videoconference links from Stratcom’s primary underground command post, before eventually returning to Washington, D.C. in the evening.

It is probable that Stratcom’s fleet of airborne command posts, including those based near Omaha nicknamed "Looking Glass," were placed under increased security and that preparations were made to make them airborne. It is also likely that the president’s specially shielded and outfitted airborne command post, known as the National Airborne Operations Center or NAOC (code-named "Night Watch"), was also readied (it is normally kept on 15-minute ground alert). Indeed, the president’s diversion to Omaha suggests that officials were at least contemplating moving him from Air Force One to NAOC where he could, if necessary, remain aloft for as long as 72 hours while directing a military response.

From the White House bunker, Cheney ordered the evacuation of everyone designated as a successor to the president, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Cong. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois; the president pro tempore of the Senate, Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia; and the entire Cabinet (except Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who remained at the Pentagon), as well as the rest of the congressional leadership. The Secret Service tried at least twice to convince Cheney to evacuate as well, "but I didn’t want to leave the node that we’d established there in terms of having all this capability tied together by communications . . . and if I’d left . . . all of that would have been broken down . . . so I thought it was appropriate for me to stay there in the White House."

Hastert, and presumably most if not all the others who were in the Washington, D.C. area, were picked up at designated assembly points by Marine Corps helicopters kept ready for that purpose. They were transported to "a secure facility," most likely the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s bunker known as the High Point Special Facility, inside Mount Weather near Berryville, Virginia, 48 miles (approximately 20 minutes by air) from Washington. (Senior officials who happened to be away from Washington would have been taken to one or more of the many emergency relocation sites located throughout the country. According to a former official from the White House Military Office, by 1980 there were reportedly more than 75 such facilities.) The underground complex at Mount Weather, which was built over four years at a cost of more than $1 billion and opened in 1958, contains an estimated 600,000 square feet of floor space. The facility, which was designed to accommodate several thousand people, includes a hospital, dining and recreation areas, sleeping quarters, an emergency power plant, a radio and television studio, a direct link to the White House, storage tanks capable of holding 500,000 gallons of water, and a crematorium. The only previous time High Point was fully activated was November 9, 1965, during a major power blackout across much of the northeast United States.

Alternatively, some or all of these officials may have been sent to Site R, officially known as the Alternate Joint Communications Center. Since 1953, Site R has served as the backup Pentagon, with more than 700,000 square feet of floor space, sophisticated computer and communications equipment, and room for more than 3,000 people. Located inside Raven Rock Mountain about six miles north of Camp David on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, Site R continued to operate as a major CoG facility even as other facilities were mothballed in the 1990s. As recently as 1997, it had more than 500 military and civilian personnel reportedly working there (although not on round-the-clock shifts, which ended in February 1992).

During the Cold War, every federal agency had its own emergency relocation site for use during and after a nuclear war. Senior officials at the Treasury Department apparently worked from their site on September 11 and it is likely officials from other departments did as well.

Fear and uncertainty about the terrorists’ plans, the whereabouts of any accomplices, and ongoing concerns about the safety of the president in Washington, D.C., led Vice President Cheney to spend his evenings and perhaps some days of the remainder of that week at the presidential retreat at Camp David, where there is also a secure, if rather austere, underground shelter. At least one television report suggested Cheney was also spending time at Site R during this tense period, a wholly plausible scenario. Even as late as September 20, when President Bush ventured to Capitol Hill to address the nation, security concerns kept Cheney away, reportedly the first time a vice president has not appeared with a president before a joint session of Congress (Senator Byrd took his seat on the dais). House majority leader Richard Armey, Republican of Texas, also skipped the event at the request of security officials.

How well all of this worked is as yet unknown and is, in any event, highly classified. While there are still regular emergency evacuation drills for designated senior officials, and although the White House Communications Agency and FEMA still track the location of each duly designated presidential successor, there were almost certainly a few problems locating everyone and getting all the equipment and communications links up and running.

While the CoG plans evidently worked well, the mass evacuations of all federal government buildings and many private office buildings in New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and elsewhere created massive traffic jams, bringing traffic in some areas to a standstill for hours. This demonstrated once and for all the utter unreality and futility of civil defense plans devised by government officials, who from the 1950s through the 1980s promoted orderly citywide evacuations to the countryside as the best means of defense against a nuclear attack.

©2001 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists