Bunkers beyond the Beltway
THE CENTRALIZATION OF THE FEDERAL government at Washington DC has its obvious drawbacks from a security standpoint. Despite a reportedly extensive underground bunker network in the Capitol region (underground command centers with multiple levels have been built under the East Wing of the White House and under the Pentagon, for example), the federal government has maintained the strategy that, in the event of a truly serious situation, its best to head for the hills.
Duplicating and securing the federal government beyond the beltway initiated an underground building boom that began in the 1950’s, and lead to the creation of almost a hundred “continuity of government” locations within the Federal Arc, a 300 mile radius around the capitol, according to published reports in the press.* These facilities were built to house representatives of nearly all the branches of government, in underground shelters, to sit out the fallout from a nuclear war, and to be able to continue the operations of a federal government once the bombardment stopped.
As important as maintaining personnel to carry out the command of government, is the ability to know what is going on in the country and the world, and to be able to communicate, internally and externally. Therefore, a lot of the effort to build back-up systems for the federal government in the event of a nuclear war involved the creation of invulnerable communications systems.
Much of this infrastructure, built in the Cold War, is still in use today, with renewed importance in the terrorism era. Some of it is operated by the Defense department, some by secretive intelligence organizations, and some is operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The two biggest and most important federal bunkers beyond the beltway are Mount Weather and Raven Rock, in Virginia and Pennsylvania, respectively. Site R, as Raven Rock is often called, is the alternate command center for the Pentagon. Mount Weather is the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s primary hub. Both have somewhere in the neighborhood of 600,000 to 700,000 square feet of underground space, though Raven Rock may be slightly larger.
Together, these two facilities function as the main relocation sites for the highest level civilian and military officials, and what is called, seemingly interchangeably, the “Continuity of Government” and the “Continuity of Operations Plan” (COOP). The present day version of this plan, when it is activated, as recent articles in national newspapers have claimed, calls for 75 to 100 government workers to be kept in one of two underground locations, briefed daily and prepared to take over if the active, elected government is wiped out. COOP was activated hours after the attacks on September 11, and since that time these unknown individuals have been serving in rotations lasting up to three months, in Raven Rock and Mount Weather.
Raven Rock gets its name from the hill where it is located, a 650 surface acre site in southern Pennsylvania, next to the Maryland state line. It was first hollowed out in the early 1950’s, and went on line in 1954. Its officially stated function is as the Alternate Joint Communications Center, and a contingency relocation site for the Joint Staff Support Center, a division of the Pentagon.
For much of the Cold War, Site R is said to have had a full-time staff of 350, including representatives of the major military departments and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with space enough for an additional 2,600 people. Site R was supported by nearby Fort Ritchie, Maryland, a 638 acre Army post, with over 2,000 employees, that closed in the 1990’s. It is now administered out of Fort Detrick, Maryland. The Defense Information Systems Agency, Western Hemisphere, a military division that calls itself the “Guardians of the Rock,” operates the communication and command center located in the bunker. This is the underground site that is reportedly most favored by Vice President Dick Cheney.
The other major Continuity of Operations Plan site is the Mount Weather complex, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. While Site R is dominated by its role as a Department of Defense command facility, Mount Weather is a “civilian” command facility, the center of operations for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). For its FEMA role as the National Emergency Coordinating Center, it has extensive communication facilities that link it to the nationwide network of FEMA bunkers, relocation sites, and to the White House Situation Room. Underground, there are sleeping accommodations for 2,000, including private sleeping quarters for the President, Cabinet, and the Supreme Court, as well as all the functions required to support large numbers of people underground for considerable periods, such as 500,000 gallons of water that are stored on site, a hospital and a crematorium. The blast door for the main tunnel portal weighs 34 tons and is 5 feet thick. On the surface, the site covers 434 acres, and has several large buildings, including conference and training buildings for FEMA.
The government first used the site in 1903 as a weather station. Tunnel boring began in the 1950’s, by the Bureau of Mines and the Army Corps of Engineers, and cost as much as $1 billion in today’s dollars. The number of people on site fluctuates from a few hundred to over 1,000, depending on alert status.
The most famous of the federal retreats is Camp David, located in Catoctin Mountain Park, a National Park Service area near Thurmont, Maryland, and only a few miles from Site R, and the Federal Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg. The rustic cabins at the camps have been replaced over the years with semi-rustic-looking bungalows that have the luxuries demanded of heads of state. Approximately 50 buildings are clustered around the highest point in the park, within a 125 acre fenced area, designated as Department of Defense property within the park. Reports about the extent of the underground bunkers at Camp David vary, but there is known to be an underground communications center and a VIP bomb shelter, constructed in 1959. Rumors abound about more extensive facilities, including a tunnel connecting Camp David to Site R. The surrounding park is open to the public, and has a few other “camps” with clusters of buildings, some clearly in use by military personnel, such as the sailors and marines that protect and maintain Camp David.
A few miles from Site R and Camp David, the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Maryland, is a training campus for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Center was established in 1979, at a 107 acre site originally occupied by St. Joseph’s College, a liberal arts college which closed in 1973. Classrooms and some field training facilities are located on site. The emphasis is training for civilian emergency professionals, such as fire fighters, and emergency response managers and coordinators. A sample of training course titles includes: “Advanced Radiological Accident Assessment - Post-Plume Phase,” “Use of Auto-Injectors by Civilian Emergency Medical Personnel to Treat Civilians Exposed to Nerve Agent,” and “Mass Fatalities Incident Course.” Thousands are trained here every year, and an increase in terrorist related curricula is drawing more students from all over the country.
Part of the communication infrastructure designed to support the federal government, is the mysterious and extensive complex known as the Warrenton Training Center (WTC), located in rural Virginia. Warrenton’s, Station B, the largest of the four locations that make up the WTC, is a 346 acre communications center operated by the Defense Department, with underground bunkers, of unknown extent, for the protection of federal communications infrastructure and for the personnel assigned to protect it (and possibly for other purposes as well). Officially, WTC is administered by the Army to support the National Communications System, an entity established by President Kennedy, that is mandated to provide communications for the federal government, under any circumstance, including those following an all-out nuclear attack. This infrastructure links all the federal emergency bunkers, and provides service for most of the major federal governmental departments, from Agriculture and Energy, to Defense and the NSA. Little is officially released about the function of WTC, though the Federation of American Scientists states that “there are a large number of multi-story buildings” at Station B, “including a number of buildings constructed in the late 1980’s.”
Warrenton, Station A is an administrative, training, and residential compound, located close to the town of Warrenton. There are numerous buildings on site, from residences to brick office-type buildings. Station C and D are more remote, and seem to be primarily vast antenna sites. At least one of the two are suspected to have other functions as well, including as “numbers stations” for the CIA, transmitting coded signals for the federal intelligence gathering infrastructure.
The Olney Federal Support Center, near Laytonville, Maryland, is a communications and data network site, with known and unknown functions. Located at a former Nike missile base, this location consists of a vast field of antennas, with several surface buildings. It is next to a National Guard detachment, and a large landfill, which has helped fuel suspicions that extensive digging has taken place at the site (the disposal of the dirt from secret subterranean excavation projects is always an issue for the builders of these sites, according to some underground researchers). It is known to be part of FEMA’s National Radio System, a high-frequency radio network that links FEMA’s emergency operations centers. Rumors about multiple levels underground have been circulated primarily by UFOlogists and conspiracy theorists.
A number of the original continuity of government sites were closed in the 1990’s. The most well known of these secret bunkers was code-named Casper, and was kept prepared for congressional members (most of whom were unaware of its existence). This 112,000 square foot bunker, 64 feet underneath the posh Greenbriar Resort in West Virginia, opened in 1962. It had dining facilities (with landscapes painted behind fake windows), a hospital, beds for up to 1,000 people, and separate chambers for the House and the Senate. As recently as 1992 it was staffed by a crew, masquerading as a television repair company, which even kept a current supply of the prescription drugs used by the individual members of Congress, in case the site was activated, according to a CBS news story on the bunker that aired after it was officially de-comissioned in 1995.
Mount Pony is another major underground federal bunker which is no longer in use as part of the continuity of government plan. This 140,000 square foot, hardened underground complex, near Culpeper, Virginia, opened in 1969, and was used until 1992 by the U. S. Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve. Until 1988, over a billion dollars in currency was stored here to resupply the nation in the event of a devastating nuclear attack, much of it in the form of two dollar bills. For many years it was also the location of the Culpeper Switch, the principal hub of the Federal Reserve’s 40,000 mile secure communications system, that routed the trillions of dollars that pass through the Feds electronic systems annually. (The Federal Reserve is said to have had bunkers for nine of the system’s 12 regional branches, including a 44,000 square foot bunker in western Massachusetts that served the Boston Federal Reserve Bank, acquired in 1992 by Amherst College.) Until 1992, as a government relocation center, the Mount Pony facility had a regular staff of 100 on hand to care for selected government officials who would flee to the site in the event of nuclear war. In 1997, the site was transferred to the Library of Congress for use as an archival storage facility called the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, scheduled to open in 2005.
While many of the continuity of government sites established during the Cold War were designed for existing departments and divisions of the federal government (Congress, Treasury, the Supreme Court, etc.), some facilities housed new and lesser known federal entities, that would gain importance in the event of an emergency, such as a nuclear war. A now unoccupied bunker below the basement of the Lewis Hall of Science at Western Maryland College is an interesting case in point. This 6,000 square foot chamber, accessed by elevator, and equipped with a broadcast facility connected to FEMA’s communications infrastructure, was for the leaders of the United State Office of Censorship, later renamed the Wartime Information Security Program. In the event of a war, a group of eight appointed individuals, and a staff of 40, were to convene at this location to assume their duties leading the national censorship of news broadcast and print media, according to federally mandated emergency guidelines, listed in manuals and code books stored in the bunker. One of the directors of this program was the Vice-President of CBS.
In a society such as ours, it is common to have murky alliances between the federal government and private companies that manage systems critical to defense and commerce. Corporations such as AT&T, for example, have continuity of operations plans and underground back up control centers of their own. If the variety and extent of known underground facilities maintained by the federal government in the Federal Arc is any indication of the pervasiveness of this form of architecture, an inventory of America’s underground spaces would be nearly impossible to compile. The depth and breadth of this subsurface layer of the built landscape will most likely remain obscure, as it was intended to be. ♦