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WASHINGTON, DC -There's nothing ambiguous about the modern office complex in the basement of the Department of Health and Human Service's Hubert Humphrey Building. A sign right by the elevator in the main lobby clearly says, "Secretary's Emergency Operating Center, Room 3B-10," and bears a downward-pointing arrow. A magazine rack in the operating center's vestibule, which is equipped to function as an air-lock, is loaded with literature on civil defense. The complex contains meeting rooms, dormitories, a radio room, an infirmary, a well-stocked kitchen and a private office for the Secretary of Health and Human Services, which is decorated with photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a long shot of a mushroom cloud. Room 313-10 has been built for service in a nuclear war.

Of course, no one is counting on Room 313-10, which is located just one-and-a-half miles from the White House, to survive a full-scale nuclear attack. While some theorists speculate that, in a war, the Soviet Union would deliberately spare Washington from attack so that American leaders would survive to negotiate and, if appropriate, surrender, the more general assumption is that a nuclear war would see Washington rapidly transformed from the functioning capital of a powerful nation to a radioactive parking lot. The government has therefore been planning for many years for what it calls "continuity of government" during and following a nuclear war.

In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower led 15,000 federal officials to secret encampments outside Washington during a national civil defense drill. While reports were coming in of more than five million Americans "killed" by enemy bombs, Eisenhower went on national television and radio to announce, "We are here to determine whether or not the Government is prepared in time of emergency to continue the function of government so that there will be no interruption in the business that must be carried on." Newspapers all over the country carried front-page photos of the President conferring with top aides in a tent.

Today's continuity of government program is far less visible, but it retains the Eisenhower-era legacy of the "Federal Relocation Arc," a network of emergency operating centers within several hours drive of Washington for the use of what are now called "Category A" agencies during a nuclear war.

Category A federal agencies are those considered to have "essential, uninterruptible" functions to perform during the "pre-attack, trans-attack and immediate post-attack periods." This distinguishes them from Category B agencies, which have roles to play in "post-attack reconstitution as soon as conditions permit," and the relatively expendable Category C agencies, which "are to defer reconstitution until directed by appropriate authority."

Category A agencies, with their high priority nuclear war roles, number about three dozen, including every Cabinet department and such independent agencies as the General Services Administration, the post-nuclear attack responsibilities of which include "printing and making available, on a decentralized basis, a Federal Register of Presidential Proclamations," and the Environmental Protection Agency, which will be responsible for "diagnosis of quality problems and hazards in the environment which would impede the survival and recovery efforts of the nation."

To promote the survival of federal officials assigned to supervise the survival of the country, every Category A agency is required to have three emergency executive teams. Team A, generally headed by the chief of the organization, would remain at the organization's normal headquarters, but not necessarily in its members' normal offices. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) A team, for example, would report to Room 313-210. (Reflecting the standards of an earlier day, Room 313-210 is equipped with a 30-bed men's dormitory for the executive team members and a 4-bed women's dormitory for the team's secretaries. Current plans are to partition the "men's" dormitory as needed during a nuclear war.) Team A would continue to run its agency until and unless it was destroyed.

Team B would report in a period of extreme international crisis to Mount Weather, a vast underground complex 80 miles west of Washington near the town of Paris, Virginia. It would take over when Team A was destroyed. Team C would report to its agency's own secret relocation site somewhere in the Federal Relocation Arc. It would back up Team B. (Outside Washington, the regional offices of Category A agencies are required to have two emergency teams, one to stay at headquarters and one to proceed to one of six underground Federal Regional Centers scattered around the country.)

Every emergency team member throughout the government has already been issued a Federal Employee Emergency Card, which carries the bearer's photo and blood type, and the message, "The person described on this card has essential emergency duties with the federal government. Request full assistance and unrestricted movement be afforded the person to whom this card is issued."

But each agency is still responsible for getting its own team members into position. One alerting system, typical of most Category A agencies, is described in the DHHS Emergency Management Team Member's Handbook. It sets up a four-level telephone chain, whereby each team member, upon receiving telephoned word of an alert, passes the alert on to several others. The lowest level alert, the handbook notes, is a "communications watch," which is "the normal or near normal preparedness posture of DHHS." Next up the ladder is an "initial alert," following which Band C team members are to fill their car gas tanks or make emergency carpool arrangements. An "advanced alert" obliges team members to cancel travel plans and "assemble a personal kit of subsistence and survival items." An "attack warning" means it's too late to do much of anything.

Like most agencies' emergency instructions, the DHHS handbook advises team members, upon receiving an advanced alert, to "make arrangements for your family's protection and safety." The Treasury Department has arranged accommodations for its team members' families in a "low risk" area, and the Federal Reserve System will allow team members to bring their families along to its relocation sites, but most agencies have made no plans for families at all. "I consider it a weakness in the program," said Richard Pidgeon, the Commerce Department's Emergency Coordinator. "Team members are supposed to make their own arrangements: ‘If I have to go, honey, take the kids and go up to Aunt Bessie's.' I think that's asking a hell of a lot."

So do many team members. A 1978 survey of 534 emergency team members in six departments conducted by the General Accounting Office found that, while more than 80 percent said they probably would report to their emergency duty stations, 76 percent said that improving emergency provisions for their families would increase the likelihood of their reporting. "There's a 50-50 chance I'd go," says one high-ranking official who has been assigned to Mount Weather. "And if I do go I'll probably take my family with me. What are the guards going to do? I don't think they'd capture me and take me inside. They could turn us all away, but that misses the whole point of the thing."

The GAO survey pointed up other problems as well, including inadequate supplies and protection systems at many C Team sites and the fact that less than half of the emergency team members surveyed said they felt prepared to carry out their emergency duties. Continuity of government planners, the report noted, have "an unenviable task, considering that many people, both in and out of government, believe that (1) a nuclear war will probably not occur and (2) if it does, they most likely will not survive."

The task remains unenviable, and some officials involved in it still do not view their assignments optimistically. "I'm on the team that goes home and drinks gin and tonic until the bomb drops," said one emergency planner who asked not to be identified. But most planners in the area perform their tasks diligently. The lengthy emergency procedures manual of the Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration, for example, notes that emergency team leaders are responsible for stockpiling vital records at their relocation sites so they will be accessible after a nuclear attack, and provides detailed suggestions for packing such records: "Books, manuals...and similar type printed matter should be wrapped in protective paper and appropriately marked. (Experience has revealed that unprotected records not wrapped and sealed are often damaged by dust and moisture.)"

In recent months, the pace of continuity of government planning has quickened. "We take our cue from the White House and the Federal Emergency Agency," said Buford Macklin, emergency coordinator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Now, after at least a six-year hiatus, this Administration is giving every indication it will take this very seriously."

In fact, increased concern over continuity of government planning began under President Carter. In 1980, a secret continuity of government study was undertaken at the direction of the National Security Council, and its results were incorporated in Presidential Directive 58, issued by Carter in August, 1980, in tandem with Presidential Directive 59, which made explicit a shift in American strategic doctrine toward the idea of "limited" and/or extended nuclear warfare. PD-58 is highly classified, but former FEMA director John Macy, Jr. characterized it as "providing more effective ways to assure survival of government leadership in a nuclear crisis."

One concern of emergency planners and, presumably, of PD-58 is the status of the Federal Relocation Arc. "The National Arc concept was developed and facilities constructed in the late 50's and early 60's and was designed to meet the threat to continuity of government from attack by foreign bombers carrying nuclear weapons," says a recent FEMA document. "There is great concern in FEMA today about the ability of these facilities to perform the function for which they were constructed or, indeed, even to survive the threats facing the United States in the 80's and 90's."

"The program started in 1954," said John J. Policastro, head of FEMA's Continuity of Government division. "Wouldn't it be prudent to assume that Russia has found out where the facilities are and has targeted them?"

The Arc's centerpiece is Mount Weather, a huge underground facility, equipped with dormitories, sophisticated computers, a reservoir and a permanently-staffed hospital, that was designed to shelter more than 1,000 top officials from a nuclear blast. But, said Policastro, an enemy "can dig out anything they want now" with modern nuclear weapons.

"Do you scrap something like Mount Weather?" he asked. "Its capital costs are amortized, and it might survive an attack. The operating costs of a place like that are pretty cheap...Maybe, at some point, when you have sufficient alternatives, you close it."

FEMA officials would not disclose details of the alternatives envisioned by PD-58, but they indicated that the government may be moving toward a more decentralized program, building on federal employees who already work outside Washington and the Federal Regional Reconstitution Area concept, under which federal regional offices have designated small towns and cities possessing no important military or industrial targets as potential governmental centers following a nuclear attack.

"Weapons are getting smaller and more accurate," said one FEMA planner. "There are more places to hide now than there were ten years ago. You can go and pick little towns all over the country. If you disperse your people, you can make it quite difficult for the Russians to knock out your leadership."

Primary consideration, of course, has already been given to saving the life of the President or, failing that, at least one of the Constitutionally-designated Presidential successors. FEMA has designed, and the White House administers, a Central Locator System for keeping tabs on the whereabouts of all those in line for the Presidency. "In peacetime," said Keith Peterson of FEMA's tests and exercises division, "we can tell you if a particular successor is in town or out of town on a given day. During a period of increasing tension, we can escalate the reporting requirements so we know when they're in their office, or at home, or in their car, or even when they go down the hall."

The Central Locator System came into play on the occasion of President Reagan's State of the Union message last February. When it became apparent that every one of the Presidential successors intended to be in the Capitol to hear it, Secretary of Education T.H. Bell, low man on the succession totem pole, was ordered to stay away.

The Cabinet secretaries, who make up the bulk of the Presidential successors, are assigned to their departments' A teams for periods of international crisis. If an attack warning comes in, they are to be picked up by military helicopters and flown out of Washington. Similarly, the President is to be picked up by helicopter at the White House and flown to Andrews Air Force Base to board the National Emergency Airborne Command Post, a windowless, $250 million edition of the 747. He can cruise above the ensuing nuclear attack in his airplane or land to take shelter in one of more than 80 underground hiding places around the country.

"The President has choices," said William D. Baird, FEMA's assistant associate director for national security plans and preparedness. "He can go up. He can go down. Or he might want to stay right in the White House, as the act of a leader."

The Vice President by then, of course, would already be out of town.