On the heels of superstorm Sandy, the Discovery Channel plans to air a documentary Sunday delving into the government's top-secret plans and facilities set up for a Doomsday scenario.
At one time, these plans almost singularly existed with the possibility of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union in mind. Today, the threat of a terror attack like 9/11, a cyber attack from abroad, an attack on the power grid or an extraordinary natural disaster have all been added to the list.
Among the experts Discovery tapped for "America's Doomsday Plan" is Marc Ambinder, author of the soon-to-be released "Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry." As a political and national security reporter he has often written for various outlets about "Continuity Of Government"—the name for the procedures the U.S. government has in place so it can continue to operate during a catastrophic event. The plans include securing the president and other high-level officials in a plane or in bunkers, and ensuring government agencies can continue to operate through a set of command centers.
"I'm incredibly fascinated by this, not just because it's a secret," says Ambinder. "But it's also an incredibly important part of history that we know little about. And what we do know is shrouded in conspiracy theories."
Many of these theories hinge on the belief the government's Doomsday scenario includes plans for an extralegal, military government that would take over in times of chaos, as well as suspend the Constitution. Ambinder says he found no evidence of this, but concedes many details remain classified. Skepticism is rife, too, because of the plan's estimated annual budget of $5-6 billion, despite being designed for a very rare event.
The documentary, which premieres Sunday at 10 pm EST on the Discovery Channel, also sheds light for the first time on details of the Doomsday plan under past administrations. During the Reagan administration, for example, new bunkers were opened up for the president and secret exercises ramped up for his cabinet members. Much of the focus at that time, says Ambinder, was on "what would happen with the nuclear codes."
"America's Doomsday Plan" also delves into modern-day Doomsday scenarios, something the Federal Emergency Management Agency is deeply invested in. According to Ambinder, 30 percent of FEMA head Craig Tugate's job is dealing with the secret continuity programs. The other 70 percent, of course, is spent handling emergencies like the recent superstorm. But because FEMA does both jobs, there is a level of crossover.
"What FEMA is using in the Tri-state area [now] would be what they would do in the event of a major emergency," says Ambinder. "The sexy part of [FEMA] is the part you don't see all the time. It's this parallel world" that exists, he says.
Part of that world is a secretive FEMA operations center in Virgina called Mount Weather. It is one of several relocation sites intended for top level military officials during a catastrophe. The center includes a high frequency radio system designed for communication between public safety agencies and states during a disaster.
The U.S. Air Force is also a key part of the Doomsday plan, with a strategic command center housed at Offutt Air Force base near Omaha. The base is home to four Boeing 747s designed to allow the president to command from air during a time of catastrophe. The primary Doomsday plane is "tricked out to weather the apocalypse" and "has everything senior leadership would need to defend America from the air," according to the documentary.
That doesn't mean all the technology the Doomsday plane uses is brand new. Instead, much of the plane's technology is straight out of the 1980s. "You walk into some of these places and you see huge telephones that look like lunch boxes," says Ambinder. Modern-day technology, the film notes, can be more susceptible to hacking or breaking than older technology can.
Those involved in the Continuity of Government plan have defended the program against its critics. In 2010, Lt. Col. David Gaskill, who oversees the day-to-day operations of president's Doomsday plane, told U.S. Strategic Command it is the "most technologically advanced airborne system in the world."
Interviews featured in the documentary are no different. Damon Penn, assistant administrator for national continuity programs at FEMA, tells the film in closing: "As a private citizen I sleep very well comfortably at night knowing that our way of life is preserved."