The Disaster Agency. (FEMA)


from The 70 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time by Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen.

The plague of hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters that beset America during the late 1980s seemed to mystify the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). While victims pleaded for attention, the bureaucracy charged with handling disaster relief fumbled and stalled. Alas, if only catastrophe had taken a more familiar form - say, nuclear war, border-storming "aliens", or rampaging radicals - FEMA would have known precisely what to do: Slam subversives into national detention centers, declare martial law, suspend the U.S. Constitution, and govern from underground bunkers until the apocalypse is contained and mopped up.

Most Americans had never even heard of this obscure government agency before syndicated columnist Jack Anderson reported in October 1984 that FEMA had prepared bizarre "standby legislation" that would, in the event of a national crisis, "suspend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, effectively eliminate private property, abolish free enterprise, and generally clamp Americans in a totalitarian vise." In any self-respecting banana republic, such a document might be called a blueprint for a coup d'état. FEMA called it "national security" planning.

Cold War delirium only partly explains FEMA's preoccupation with junta-minded plotting during the Reagan era. To understand how a disaster relief agency came to think of itself as a "junior CIA or FBI," as one critic put it, it's helpful to consider the mind-set that launched the Reagan Revolution. In 1981, Ronald Reagan and his arch-conservative troops marched into Washington determined to extinguish a conflagration that had, in fact, long since burned itself out. In the eyes of the president's aging posse, however, the flaming hippies, militant minorities, and draft-dodging radicals of the sixties and early seventies continued to pose a clear and present danger.

Thus was born FEMA. Or, more accurately, thus was it born again. Jimmy Carter had established the agency as a catchall for natural-disaster relief and civil defense planning. But under Reagan, FEMA immediately went off the deep end, eyeing peaceful demonstrators as potential bomb-throwing terrorists.

To head the agency, Reagan and presidential counsel Edwin Meese III (later U.S. attorney general) tapped their old friend "General" Louis O. Giuffrida, a stealth-obsessed ex-California National Guard officer who preferred to be addressed according to his former rank in that organization. Giuffrida was eminently qualified for what Reagan and Meese had in mind. Prepared for all contingencies, he had himself deputized so he could pack a sidearm at the office.

During the late sixties and early seventies, Giuffrida had served as Governor Reagan's terrorism advisor and at Reagan's request founded the California Specialized Training Institute (CSTI), a school for police and military commandos. To quote an early CSTI instruction manual: "Legitimate violence is integral to our form of government, for it is from this source that we can continue to purge our weaknesses."

Giuffrida and Meese (then Governor Reagan's chief assistant) helped develop a plan to purge California of its militant and peaceful protesters. Operation Cable Splicer, a variation of the Army Garden Plot, a "domestic counterinsurgency" scheme, spied on suspected radicals and marshaled maximum force to squash riots and legitimate demonstrations alike.

But if the early seventies were heady days for military and civil defense planners, the budding 1980s turned out to be a veritable renaissance for cold warriors. As Reagan warned complacent Americans about the Evil Empire and the communist horde (which was bivouacked just south of Texas, the Gripper claimed), the Pentagon prepared plans for World War IV - mere World War III preparations being hazardously short-sighted. Gitiffrida, meanwhile, battened the hatches at FEMA. Signs were posted warning employees that SECURITY IS EVERY BODY'S BUSINESS. A new phone system was installed to record (each number dialed, and memos were circulated reminding staffers that personal phone calls were verboten: "Calling to say you will be home late could result in a fine or separation from the job," advised one memorandum.

FEMA-sponsored conferences obsessed over the possibility of "radical environmentalists" teaming up with terrorists and doing unkind things to nuclear power plants. In fact, FEMA's R & D work made the CIA's LSD dabbling look like a 4H project. According to Donald Goldberg, who helped research Jack Anderson's column, government scientists advised FEMA on mob control techniques such as "injecting terrorists with stimtilants and tranquilizers to manipulate their actions in times of crisis, or zapping them with microwaves to alter their perceptions."

Given the dense trench-coat atmospherics, it was probably inevitable that one Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North would find a home away from home in Giuffrida's FEMA. As White House National Security Council liaison to FEMA, the Iran-Contra point man reportedly collaborated with Giuffrida in drawing up secret wartime contingency plans, possibly including the scheme to commandeer the Bill of Rights. Although North denied helping draft such a plan, Congressional Iran-Contra investigators never adequately grilled him on the matter. When Texas representative Jack Brooks asked North about his work for FEMA, Senate panel chairman Daniel Inouye gavelled Brooks to silence, insisting that the question dealt with classified matters. Such was the persuasiveness of FEMA's national security stamp.

FEMA's wartime crisis strategy was tested in a series of simulated war games conducted in conjunction with Pentagon maneuvers. In early 1984, FEMA, military, and other government officials met in portentous secrecy to plan a "readiness exercise" code-named Rex-84.

FEMA coordinated Rex-84 with the military's Night Train 84 operations, which deployed thousands of troops in Honduras near Contra supply bases in April 1984. The FEMA portion of the simulation involved an international crisis, presumably a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua, which supposedly would set off "uncontrolled population movements" (as one declassified FEMA memo described it), with hordes of "refugees" swarming over the Mexican border into the United States.

According to an August 1985 article in Penthouse magazine co-authored by Goldberg, during the exercise FEMA would round up some 400,000 fictional "aliens" in a six-hour period and detain them (or, rather, simulate rounding up and detaining them) in military camps throughout the United States. FEMA apparently justified the concentration camps by presuming that terrorist moles would be peppered among the refugees.

But as Goldberg noted, the Mexican border's daunting terrain made an influx of gate crashers on the order of hundreds of thousands highly unlikely. In fact, more than one critic has suggested that Rex-84 was really a drill to practice rounding up crowds of American citizens. It would have been a game plan not unlike Cable Splicer or Garden Plot, designed to quash public protests in the event of a controversial government deed - an invasion of Central America, for example.

Indeed, Giuffrida had once considered tossing Americans into concentration camps. In a 1970 paper written as an army student, Giuffrida devised a hypothetical plan for incarcerating black radicals, describing how to build and run detention camps.

That Rex-84 dealt with more than merely apprehending illegal immigrants is certain. A heavily censored FEMA memo obtained by the Miami Herald described the Alpha Two phase the exercise, as a test of "emergency legislation, assumption emergency powers... etc." In other words: martial law.

The joint FEMA-military martial law plan was more than a simulation. Shortly before the Rex-84 drill, the Pentagon Joint Chiefs of Staff had prepared an internal document itemizing the military's purported authority to proclaim martial law in times of crisis, take over local policing, and even run the courts. It was a dubious claim at best. The Posse Comitatus Act forbids the military from operating in the United States, a prohibition backed by Supreme Court precedent.

But Giuffrida was already on record as a martial law booster. In a 1972 CSTI course manual on civil disorder, Giuffrida described martial law as "the legal means available to control people during a civil disorder," including "the replacement of All civil government by the military."

The "standby" emergency legislation that columnist Anderson exposed prescribed nothing less than an American police state. Called the Defense Resources Act, the draft plan would presumably gather dust on the shelf until a time of crisis, when it would be presented to a preoccupied Congress for speedy approval. In fact, the benevolently titled legislation granted the president near-dictatorial powers, including the authority to censor communications, ban antigovernment strikes, nationalise industry, seize private property for "the national defense," and authorize loyalty oaths to the state.

To augment the Defense Resources Act, FEMA prepared a draft presidential executive order to be invoked by the commander in chief during an "emergency". The order would put FEMA in charge of all government agencies. According to the Miami Herald, the executive order activated the aforementioned legislation, thereby removing Congress and constitutional democracy from the equation entirely.

Alas, FEMA's ambitious plans were truncated shortly after the Rex-84 games, when Attorney General William French Smith complained about the agency's attempted power grab. In a letter addressed to North's boss (and fellow Iran-Contra player), Robert McFarlane, Smith warned that FEMA was trying to anoint itself "emergency czar." And, as Smith demurred, FEMA's generous definition of crisis encompassed "'routine' domestic law emergencies." Smith's objections apparently killed the draft executive order.

Though the full scope of the Rex-84 games remains obscure, the Ollie North connection is particularly interesting, given that North was simultaneously working with the Pentagon and the CIA on plans for combat forces in Central America. Was FEMA plugged into the Iran-Contra scandal coordinated by North? Because Congress chose not to pursue that avenue of Contragate, we don't know for certain. However, allegations have been made. Daniel Sheehan, crusading (perhaps recklessly so) attorney with the Christic Institute law firm, suspected that Rex-84 served as cover for illegal arms shipments to the Nicaraguan Contras. Citing unnamed sources (including one described as a member of FEMA's legal division), Sheehan claimed that FEMA distributed "hundreds of tons of small arms and ammunition" to civilian militiamen in "state defense forces" in the United States.

From the early days of the Reagan administration, FEMA had prodded state legislatures to form state defense forces, which would act as paramilitary police in the event of a national crisis. Militia in several states were recruited by placing ads in Soldier of Fortune-style magazines. In several instances state defense forces subsequently had to be purged of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other unsavory characters.

According to Sheehan, FEMA's plan was to distribute the guns and ammo to state defense forces as part of the Rex-84 war games. The militiamen would return only half of the artillery and would smuggle the remainder to the Contras, thereby circumventing the congressional ban on lethal aid to the Nicaraguan guerrillas.

Though the scheme certainly sounds like a "neat idea" worthy of the North brain trust, it's hard to imagine how even FEMA could justify parcelling out guns and ammo for the sake of a war simulation. Because Sheehan never got a chance to argue his case in court (a judge threw out the Christics' sweeping lawsuit, calling it "frivolous"), his theory has to be filed under the category of "interesting speculation."

Other speculation about FEMA having its fingers in the IranContra cookie jar revolves around a tip to Senate investigators in 1983 that C-130 and C-141 cargo planes were bound for Texas. Because the planes were rigged with troop seats, Senate staffers suspected that they were secretly ferrying troops to Central America. FEMA insisted the flights were part of its supersecret "continuity of government" (COG) program, and utterly refused to discuss the matter further.

FEMA made COG another of its obsessions. Under COG, FEMA has the last word in national eschatology. While mundane natural disaster plans gathered dust during the 1980s, FEMA beefed up its rather fanciful strategies for surviving a nuclear war, with emphasis on survival of the federal government. And the rest of us? Well, as Reagan's deputy undersecretary of defense put it: "Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors, and then throw three feet of dirt on top .... If there are enough shovels to go around, everyone is going to make it."

Under the aegis of FEMA, top government brass have the benefit of rather more lavish excavations, with the crown jewel being a top-secret underground fortress built during the early 1950s (and predating the elaborate James Bond movie sets) at a cost of more than $1 billion. The Facility, as it is known, is a sort of nuclear winter White House situated beneath the solid granite of Mount Weather in Bluemont, Virginia, forty-five miles west of Washington. It has been described as an "underground city", complete with roads and a battery-powered subway. It boasts office buildings and hospitals, private apartments and dormitories, and a power plant and artificial lake illuminated by fluorescent light. Rounding out the science fiction furnishings are a color video phone system and one of the world's most powerful supercomputers.

In the event of a major nuclear or other catastrophe, surviving feds would run the country from The Facility as well as from FEMA's underground command center in Olney, Maryland, and up to fifty regional bunkers salted throughout the nation. There's even an underground Pentagon more than six hundred feet below solid granite just north of Camp David.

Unfortunately, during a national catastrophe the feds administering the former United States might not be familiar names to you. FEMA's COG scheme involves about three thousand unelected, unaccountable people recruited and trained by FEMA "to serve in executive positions in the federal government in time of national security emergency."

FEMA under Giuffrida never had a chance to retreat to its mole-man cities, govern by remote control, or even demonstrate the uses of legitimate violence." Giuffrida resigned in 1985, reportedly under pressure from Pentagon and FBI officials who saw in the ambitious "general" a more imminent emergency: their endangered fiefdoms.


Chardy, Alfonso. "North Helped Revise Wartime Plans." Miami Herald, 9 July 1987.

Emerson, Steven. "America's Doomsday Project," U.S. News &World Report, 7 August 1989.

Goldberg, Donald, and Indy Badhwar. Penthouse, August 1985.

Peck, Keenen. "The Take-Charge Gang." The Progressive, May 1985. Poundstone, William. Bigger Secrets. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986.

Sheehan, Daniel P. Affidavit of Daniel P. Sheehan. 12 December 1986.

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