For a moment earlier this month, the West Wing seemed like a vector of disease. First came the news that Donald Trump’s personal valet had tested positive for the coronavirus. Then the vice president’s spokeswoman, who is married to another senior White House staffer, fell ill with COVID-19. Through it all, the president downplayed the risk of his exposure, openly flouting his top health agencies’ social-distancing guidelines. Trump is fine, but these brushes with the virus raise the question: What’s the plan if the whole White House becomes infected?
The answer typically lies with the government’s so-called doomsday planners—the officials at every major agency who are tasked with preparing and rehearsing the nation’s classified continuity-of-government plans. For decades, doomsday planners’ presence has been tolerated, their recommendations have been stashed in policy documents, and their warnings about dark tidings have been for the most part unheeded. The Trump administration has taken an actively hostile approach, though, decimating the institutional engines of catastrophe planning, including at the National Security Council. As a consequence, the U.S. government was not only ill-prepared for the pandemic, but willfully blinded to its potential size and shape, leaving federal agencies in the position of having to confront a fast-moving hurricane without radar to determine where it was headed or a plan to quickly restore essential functions.
The coronavirus has pushed the country’s national-security bureaucracy to figure out how to adapt in a severely restricted work environment, and forced a reexamination of how the government prepares for crises. COVID-19 hasn’t brought the United States to the precipice of doomsday, per se, but it has exposed how much citizens and states rely on a functioning federal government. It’s also revealed the consequences of what happens when the government appears unprepared to reckon with a challenge as significant as the pandemic and hasn’t listened to the people whose jobs require them to churn through permutations and contingencies. Government agencies as crucial as the CIA have had to develop COVID-19 response plans on the fly. Telework practices are patchy and decided by each agency. And it is unclear, even to employees at the highest levels of the national-security bureaucracy, what they ought to be doing.
If you work in continuity planning, a lot of your time is spent ensuring that alternate facilities can function if needed. You try to exercise scenarios, begging senior policy officials to spend a day in a bunker or room and forcing them to make choices under pressure. Then you imagine the worst-case scenarios and try to write plans that adhere to complicated government rules. Year after year, resources for continuity planning tend not to be priorities. Executive-branch departments also have to consider near-term foreseeable challenges, such as infrastructure and technology upgrades. The apocalypse doesn’t rise to top of mind.
Vic Erevia, who served as the special agent in charge of Barack Obama’s protective detail for the Secret Service, was privy to the most developed and well-rehearsed continuity preparations—those involving the presidency itself, and the preservation of communication among the three branches of government. He spent a lot of time in the weeds with the plans and their planners. “These guys, they were kind of treated like the crazy people in the corner doing their own thing,” he told me. “It’s time for them to be given their due.”
Doomsday planners can’t conjure up every possible future calamity. But their warnings can prompt the government to react quickly, to adapt to ambiguity, and to treat uncertainty as a feature of good social science, not an excuse to avoid prudent precautions. Nicholas Rasmussen, who participated in national-security continuity planning as a senior counterterrorism adviser to George W. Bush and Obama, told me that, at the moment, the U.S. government doesn’t “really have a plan for a scenario where we are down 50 percent of our workforce.” The national-security agencies, including the CIA, have predesignated employees as “essential” and cross-trained thousands to perform essential jobs should those employees become sick. But a pandemic doesn’t distinguish among people, and therefore doesn’t avoid those deemed essential, said Rasmussen, who was also the head of the National Counterterrorism Center until 2017.
The Trump administration has hollowed out the very bureaucracy that’s in charge of the planners. The president has cycled through five homeland-security secretaries and five homeland-security advisers (who also serve as national continuity coordinators) in three years, and has dismantled the apparatus that was expressly designed to inform his response and allow the government to function efficiently during emergencies. Through a succession of national security advisers, the NSC staff was dramatically reduced, culminating in John Bolton’s decision to close a dedicated pandemic-response cell inside the NSC’s global-health security and biodefense directorate. Bolton also pushed out a key official who had both the title and institutional knowledge to shape policy on contingency and continuity, Thomas Bossert, who was a senior member of Bush’s national-security staff and one of the few remaining links between the NSC and federal-preparedness officials. (Bossert did not return calls or emails asking for comment.) Soon after Bossert’s departure as homeland-security adviser, Trump downgraded the position, and it no longer reports directly to the president.
The current homeland-security adviser (and national continuity coordinator) is Julia Nesheiwat. She was appointed on February 21—two full weeks after the previous occupant, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Peter Brown, left the post. During those two weeks, the pandemic spread rapidly in the United States, and the Trump administration temporized, vamped, and struggled to figure out how to respond.
Agencies are largely left to their own devices. Since its birth more than 70 years ago, the CIA has developed an intuitive flexibility for how to function in emergencies. What happens if multiple case officers get sick in a country where the CIA isn’t supposed to be operating? There’s a plan to evacuate them without the host country knowing. What happens if local food supplies become contaminated? There’s a plan to get food stores to the CIA base.
“A lot of our stations are in places where the food supply is insecure and where you can’t trust local doctors,” said a current agency officer who, like other sources cited in this story, spoke with me on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak with the media. “We’ve had cases where the entire station gets sick and we’ve had to get our own doctors into a country. It’s just something we know how to do.”
But even the CIA could not account for a scenario like the pandemic—where almost no physical space on Earth is safe to gather in for months at a time. Four current and former agency officials, some of whom asked not to be identified, acknowledged that the coronavirus had not left the agency unscathed, with employees in the Langley, Virginia, headquarters and across the globe falling ill.
So the agency adapted its crisis planning on the fly. In this case, it did not activate its main continuity-of-operations site—an enormous, anonymous, secure facility in the mid-Atlantic region where up to 10 percent of the headquarters’ staff could run the agency’s worldwide covert operations and communications system if Langley had to be closed or was destroyed, one former agency official and a current government official told me. Instead, the agency is rotating key staff into work in cadres and has implemented social-distancing measures, they said. (The CIA spokesperson Nicole de Haay declined to provide specifics but said that in response to the pandemic, “our officers are exercising tremendous creativity and flexibility.”) It works, for now. It can’t work forever. Will it work if a terrorist engineers a pathogen to be even more virulent and transmissible than the coronavirus?
In other agencies, the government is trying to mobilize both a pandemic response and a rapid economic recovery with a workforce that is mostly immobile and figuring out what to do on an ad hoc basis. Telework is probably the biggest challenge. At the moment, no official, government-approved telework platform for unclassified work exists. Many virtual private networks are not built to handle the numbers of employees who need to use them, and commercial videoconferencing can be slow and vulnerable to hacks and sabotage. That’s despite the fact that the Defense Information Systems Agency has spent tens of millions of dollars developing secure mobile devices that could allow officials to stay at home, even if their work involves classified information at the secret level.
“I worked through every shutdown, every snowstorm, because you can’t work from home,” Rasmussen said. Normally, he said, agency counterintelligence and security officials would veto suggestions to change work paradigms, because each shift away from a centralized structure could introduce any number of new potential vulnerabilities. “I would imagine they’ll have a harder time saying, ‘No, we won’t even think about that anymore,’” Rasmussen said.
According to a Defense Department official, who declined to be identified in order to speak about a sensitive subject, the Defense Information Systems Agency is nearing the end of a pilot program that would allow employees to do limited, classified-level work from home. And some officials are rethinking their long-standing opposition to commercial end-to-end encryption. Of course, this debate could have been hashed out earlier, with guidelines at the ready, if the NSC had had the staff and sense to heed the lessons of doomsday planning.
Dab Kern, another longtime resilience and continuity planner, who was the director of the White House Military Office until the end of 2017, wants the executive branch to shift the focus of its continuity planning to secure communications and dynamic responses that would allow senior officials to work from almost anywhere. “We need to stop doing continuity the way we have done it,” he told me. “This is our opportunity to shift gears and leverage technology.” Kern noted that many private businesses, large and small, incorporating the advice of resilience experts, had plans to rapidly shift gears. “The rest of the industry does it this way. Why doesn’t the government?”
Another challenge is compelling agencies to keep their plans updated in the first place. Consider the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP). This agency, part of the Treasury Department, prints money for the Federal Reserve. It has to function during any emergency. But as of 2017, the BEP had yet to finalize a viable alternate-facility plan. I reached out to the Treasury Department but didn’t get an answer back about the BEP’s current status. I wondered what it would do if, say, COVID-19 began to afflict staff at its two facilities? (There have been no press reports about pandemic-related problems at the BEP, though its internal police force reported to work for weeks before receiving hazard pay.) In 2017, the BEP told the Treasury Department’s inspector general’s office that it did not envision a scenario where the government would run out of currency or need to rapidly print money in an emergency, and so it did not consider that function essential to its own planning. The inspector general’s auditors countered that this assumption was dubious.
This is not the first time the United States has faced a rude awakening about the necessity of fleshing out plans, rehearsing them, and revising them. A similarly cavalier attitude about doomsday prepping led to a communication breakdown on September 11, 2001, the first time since the Cuban missile crisis that the government’s secret emergency plans were formally activated. This prompted a reckoning inside the bureaucracy when the Bush administration ordered the executive branch to develop a comprehensive response for a number of disaster scenarios that would require a national emergency effort. For each scenario, a response plan was created and a lead agency designated. Vice President Dick Cheney and Joseph Hagin, a deputy chief of staff, took the reins. (Hagin served for 18 months in the Trump administration, leaving in 2018.) The aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks marked the first time that serious planning for pandemics figured prominently in government.
According to conversations with more than a dozen people who have seen them, worked on them, or written them, virtually all government continuity plans since 9/11 have been centered around two plots: nuclear terrorism (either all-out war or an explosion in the Washington, D.C., region) or a bioweapons release (limited in scale and scope, with victims easily tested and identified). After the anthrax attacks of 2001, the U.S. focused on intelligence suggesting that al-Qaeda (and later Iraq, under the government of Saddam Hussein) had explored the most effective ways to disperse a biological agent. “That’s why we immediately turned to smallpox,” a current government official told me. “The R0”—the rate of person-to-person transmission based on a pathogen’s contagiousness—“was so high and smallpox was available, at least to some of the nation-state enemies.” Russia, for example, had an active bioweapons program, run by a network of labs called Biopreparat, into the 1990s, and it experimented with weaponizing smallpox. A former Russian intelligence officer, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue and who now lives in the United States, confirmed to me that the program was operational after 9/11. (Russia denies that it is experimenting with pathogenic weapons, but its recent use of chemical and radiological poisons to kill former agents is well documented.) The U.S. intelligence community worries that adversaries could weaponize COVID-19 before there’s a vaccine, taking advantage of the gaps in preparedness exposed by the current response.
After 9/11, Cheney spent many nights at the Raven Rock facility in the Blue Ridge Mountains. But bunkers like Raven Rock are not designed to accommodate an entire bureaucracy. Most of the government’s top-secret disaster plans, buttressed by tens of billions of dollars in “black budget” spending, call for officials to break into groups, with some retreating to a secure facility outside of D.C. where they could communicate with colleagues over classified government networks. In a pandemic, the bunkers would be all but useless if you couldn’t ensure that the workers were virus-free before entering. That would require rapid and reliable tests available at the beginning of the emergency, which is hard enough with a new pathogen, but which the U.S. government did not prioritize until too many people were infected this time around. The White House itself did not develop such testing capacity for COVID-19 until early April, months after being warned that the disease could be a major threat.
Even though more than seven years had passed since 9/11, Obama kept many of Bush’s continuity and resilience officials in their jobs. The idea was to build institutional muscle memory, and allow officials to create innovative responses to problems, according to several former officials whom I spoke with. Chris Lu, the Cabinet secretary during Obama’s first term and the deputy secretary of labor during his second, found that such continuity helped bridge the gap between a government that can’t anticipate every scenario and the natural tendency of disasters not to follow a script. He told me that it was especially crucial that former Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan, former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and former FEMA Director Craig Fugate had worked together for years. “You can’t underestimate having three people managing this stuff who all know each other’s rhythms, who know the authorities they have. There is no substitute for that,” Lu said.
In both the Bush and Obama administrations, FEMA and the military, along with a growing cadre of administration officials who took a keen interest in continuity planning, developed a robust program of exercises, some live and some simulated, to stress-test how both the response plans, which differed from one another, and the continuity plans, which often did not, would function in emergencies.
But getting the military, which designed and ran most of the exercises, to think more broadly about the range of threats, was a challenge. “One of my pet peeves at the time was that the range of options … were either business as usual or a nuclear missile was minutes from Washington,” Larry Pfeiffer, a top continuity official in the Obama administration, told me. “And I would say, ‘Look, 99 percent of continuity issues have nothing to do with nuclear missiles. What about dispersals of bioweapons, or someone throws a backpack over the fence line?’” added Pfeiffer, who is now the director of the Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University.
To be sure, even if Trump hadn’t thrown out the Obama administration’s pandemic playbook, it’s hard to know just how seriously the government would have taken planners’ assessments. The president sets the tone, and staff tend to rework their assumptions to fit the president’s. A mercurial president more concerned with keeping himself in the news, and willfully ignorant of negative developments, is not likely to react quickly to potential emergencies. A different president might have improvised differently. But the playbooks—and their assumptions—need to be revised. And the doomsday planners need to have their day in the sun.