(WASHINGTON) - Nearly six months after the September 11 attacks, a backup government of federal agency officials is on standby at bunker locations outside Washington as a precaution against a catastrophic strike on the nation's capital, a senior official told CNN Friday.
The secretive operation is based on Cold War protocols and its guidelines and infrastructure are the subject of urgent review within the administration to bring "continuity of government" planning up to modern-day needs and capabilities, the federal official said.
Vice President Dick Cheney had been at "a secure and undisclosed" location for large portions of time since the terrorist strikes on New York and the Pentagon, precautions that were part of the bunker government procedures.
But while Cheney has resumed a schedule that is "almost normal," as the senior official put it, the bunker government of "several dozen, roughly 100" senior government workers remains in place, using two secure locations in the eastern United States that were constructed for such a contingency.
Because Bush has decided to leave the operation in place, agencies including the White House and top civilian Cabinet departments have rotated personnel involved, and are discussing ways to staff such a contingency operation under the assumption it will be in place indefinitely, this official said.
"We are learning a lot from just putting this in place, and we are adjusting to that," the official said.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said Friday he can't say much about the plan.
"We 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, but we look forward to work with the administration to get additional information on that."
He was asked if there was a similar plan for Congress. "I don't know if I'd call it a survival plan, but there is a plan that would be implemented were we to be in any jeopardy," Daschle said at a news conference Friday.
"Precautions have been taken and arrangements have been made to move the work of the Congress to another location. And that has been in place for some time and refined over time."
The lessons, according to this official, included a dramatic need to improve computer and other communications equipment and capabilities at the secure locations. Also, several departments are reviewing legal requirements to make sure those serving in the bunker government have the statutory or regulatory authority to carry out key government functions should contact with Washington somehow be severed.
The guidelines for such a precaution date back to Cold War preparations for the prospect of a devastating nuclear attack on the United States, and were last significantly revised in the Reagan administration.
Bush triggered the precautions in the hours after the September 11 strikes, and has left them in place because of continuing U.S. intelligence suggesting a possible threat.
Concerns that al Qaeda could have gained access to a crude nuclear device "were a major factor" in the president's decision, the official said. "The threat of some form of catastrophic event is the trigger," this official said.
This same official went on to say that the U.S. had no confirmation -- "and no solid evidence" -- that al Qaeda had such a nuclear device and also acknowledged that the "consensus" among top U.S. officials was that the prospect was "quite low."
Still, the officials said Bush and other top White House officials including Cheney were adamant that the government take precautions designed to make sure government functions ranging from civil defense to transportation and agricultural production could be managed in the event Washington was the target of a major strike.
"And to be honest as time passes this has also been a useful learning experience as to how some of this is grossly outdated and needs to be fixed," the official said.
Bush has placed Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge in charge of the operation and the parallel effort to improve the communications and other infrastructure issues, the senior official said.
The Pentagon has a separate operation to ensure continuity of operations; Bush visited one of its secure "command and control" bunkers -- at an Air Force Base in Nebraska -- as he took a careful route back to Washington from Florida on September 11 as the "continuity of government" protocols were first implemented and Cheney took the lead role in Washington, working from a secure bunker deep beneath the White House complex.