WASHINGTON – Democrats here are hopping mad because they say the Bush administration kept them in the dark about a government-in-waiting standing by since the terror attacks last fall.
But before they get too worked up, they may want to consult their party’s dean, Sen. Robert Byrd, who knew so much about the program that he turned down a meeting with White House officials on it.
Byrd, D-W.V., Tuesday confirmed that White House officials offered to update him on the administration's government contingency plans but he turned them down, saying he knew all about the program from an earlier stint as a Senate leader.
Some of Byrd's colleagues, however, say they knew nothing of the plan. They argue that the president has a duty to keep them informed of his contingency plans. If something tragic happened, they said, they wouldn't know who is running the government
"We were left in the shadow, so to speak,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. “We don't know what the role is, what their current authority is, what their purpose is at this point, other than to be prepared if an emergency of some kind would take place," he said.
The White House has had a government-in-waiting to allow continuity of operations in the event of devastation in Washington since 9/11. The project includes housing for 75 to 150 senior administration officials who rotate in and out of secret underground facilities in 90-day stretches.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott said he too had not known about the plans until they were widely reported in the press earlier this week, adding, "And I had no justification for it, either."
"This is not the kind of thing you tell 10, 50 or 100 senators. If you do, you might as well tell the world," Lott said.
Lott, R-Miss., and Daschle, D-S.D., were briefed Tuesday on operations at the two East Coast facilities that house the shadow government. Following, the meeting, Daschle said he was satisfied the administration was not trying to create a "secret" or shadow government.
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., was inadvertently not invited to the briefing, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. Gephardt's spokesman said Gephardt was "disappointed" about being overlooked.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., "had been previously informed" about the continuity of government program, according to his spokesman. Aides say Hastert learned how federal employees were working at undisclosed locations during a briefing with administration officials.
And members who claim they are being kept in the dark apparently missed press accounts in October as well as federal documents urging various agencies to make ready their emergency plans.
On Oct. 4, for example, the U.S. Archivist issued a memo to the heads of all federal agencies urging them to “be prepared for even the most unlikely threat.
“To ensure that the Government can respond immediately following a disaster, it is essential that your agency have an active disaster preparedness and recovery program for the records needed to provide essential government services and protect legal rights,” the memo said.
On Oct. 29, U.S. News & World Report reported that in order to preserve “continuity of operations” should the country’s capital be attacked, executive branch officials were deployed to bunkers outside of Washington. And Oct. 17, the The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that more than a dozen Interior Department officials were holed up in bunkers outside D.C.
Administration officials also say the secretary of the Senate and the Senate sergeant-at-arms were taken to one of the secure facilities on Sept. 22, where they were briefed on the operations. They both signed non-disclosure forms, which were presented to the press Tuesday.
Fleischer did say Tuesday that details of the "shadow government" were kept under wraps to some degree because the White House did not want to repeat what happened to the underground bunker at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulfur Springs, W.Va. Greenbrier was constructed to guard members of Congress during a nuclear attack, but is now a tourist site rented out for theme parties.
"There was a similar program that operated for the legislative branch and as a result of a great number of people talking about it, discussing it, and being informed, the program is now a tourist attraction," Fleischer said.
"The president has no interest in repeating in the executive branch what happened in the legislative branch," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.