How FEMA Fought the Future

Confessions of an emergency "planner"


When a Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman refused last June to release an agency memorandum refuting charges that FEMA was in league with aliens, it came as no surprise to conspiracists. To be sure, the charge had only the plot of a just-released movie (The X-Files: Fight the Future) as its basis, but such involvement would certainly be in character for a federal agency whose fleet of black helicopters is supposedly spotted all the time chasing UFOs in and out of caverns in Arizona.

After all, as Timothy McVeigh's erstwhile buddy, Michael Fortier, used to note in the flyers he handed out at the True Value hardware store in Kingman, FEMA is poised to run the country. At least it is once the United Nations has taken complete control and imposed its "New World Order" (you know, the one that the Trilateral Commission has long been developing in concert with the Council on Foreign Relations).

For a long time, FEMA cleverly hid its plans under a cover of incompetence. In the 1980s, for example, when Ronald Reagan revived the idea of fighting and winning a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, FEMA proposed to evacuate two-thirds of the population to rural areas–a plan that depended only upon the Soviets obligingly assuring us of a full week's notice before attacking. To raise morale among the dubious, the agency put out the good word that food should be no problem in the post-nuclear environment, inasmuch as livestock were far more likely to survive than people.

If called upon to respond to more-mundane threats–floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and the like–the agency became famous for dealing slowly, incompetently, and even rudely with the disaster-struck communities seeking federal help.

Meanwhile, FEMA provided safe haven for out-of-work pols and other holders of political chits. When Bill Clinton first came to Washington wanting to do something nice for Raymond L. (Buddy) Young, the former head of his Arkansas security detail, he gave him a $92,300-a-year job as director of FEMA's regional office in Texas. And when Young–and later Clinton himself–phoned one of the Arkansas troopers who had been spilling tales of the president's dalliances to the Los Angeles Times, the trooper reportedly said that Clinton offered him a FEMA job too.

Finally, however, when the agency's stumblebum reputation grew so bad as actually to threaten its multibillion-dollar budget, FEMA decided it had better pay more attention to its cover mission. In recent years the agency has responded competently to a record number of natural disasters (a coincidence?). Meanwhile, using the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (and later the Oklahoma City bombing) as justification, the agency has beefed up its capability to deal with chemical weapons, biological agents, and other nonnatural threats. As The Washington Post reported in April 1995, FEMA has held secret planning and training exercises in communities around the country, ostensibly in anticipation of further acts of foreign and domestic terrorism.

But the militia of cyberspace is not fooled. When FEMA announced an evacuation exercise in New Mexico two years ago, one Web site (www.iahushua. com/WOI/FEMA2.html) warned that should a real emergency be declared, "FEMA will…FORCE and escort ALL residents to `safety zones.'…You will be required to leave your front door unlocked as you leave." And why would FEMA do that? "Folks might want to ask themselves one question, What is the only thing in the world that stands in the way of the full implementation of a worldwide socialistic central corporate government (NOW) and eliminating every trace of Sovereignty and Americanism in existence. OUR WEAPONS–OF COURSE….This is what they have been practicing for when all the brain dead sheeple were telling us that we did not know what we were talking about."

Of course, most of us know better than that. Or do we?

In fact, FEMA and its predecessor agencies have been planning to take over the U.S. economy for many decades. I know. I was part of the planning effort.

Not many people remember, but FEMA has an ancestry of Pynchonesque intrigue and complexity. Its roots trace back to the World War II Office of Defense Mobilization, an Executive Office agency charged with galvanizing the resources of the civilian economy to support the crash war effort. Working with a small group of economists and operation researchers in the Defense Department and supportive think tanks, the ODM began to develop models of the U.S. economy that would facilitate its command and control in emergency situations.

After the war ended, the Eisenhower administration sent the Pentagon modelers packing based on the not-incorrect notion that their planning efforts smacked of socialism. But the ODM planners got a new lease on life through a merger with the Federal Civil Defense Administration, a ragtag agency newly charged with the impossible job of protecting the civilian population in the event of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.

The resulting Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization suffered from an imperfect melding of its plebeian FCDA and more-aristocratic ODM ancestries. Nonetheless, aided by a physically massive (if, by modern standards, pitifully feeble) computer operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and housed in a "hardened" site under a Virginia mountain, OCDM set to work developing huge files on the country's industrial, agricultural, transportation, and communication resources. With the help of a venerable think tank, the National Planning Association, it also continued development of a huge time-phased input/output model of the U.S. economy that was meant to assist the government in reconstituting the civilian economy in the wake of a devastating nuclear attack.

First as an intern, then as a government employee, and later as a think tank researcher, I conspired on all aspects of this 1960s planning effort. Though it didn't occur to me much at the time, we were indeed planning to "take over" the country, in a manner of speaking. I can't say that we gave any thought to working with the U.N.–we were too busy coping with the simulated mess at home to worry about establishing any new world orders. Our intentions were ultimately benign. But we certainly did intend to make the trains–and much else–run according to our timetables. And our intentions might easily be misconstrued.

One model component that I refined and programmed, for example, sought to maximize the growth rate of livestock herds until they reached a "level-off" magnitude sufficient to support a reasonably varied and nutritious diet for the surviving humans. (This was fairly easy in the event of a "counterforce" attack pattern in which the Soviets primarily targeted our own ICBMs and SAC bases, employing "air bursts" that maximized the radius of destruction but minimized secondary radioactive fallout spread. Far messier were "ground strike" patterns aimed at urban centers. These tended to leave bunches of slowly dying humans as well as livestock with which to contend.)

As it turned out, maximizing long-run herd growth did not consign the human population to short-run vegetarianism. In fact it required a fairly vigorous culling of young males. Only a small number of male animals are needed to service the females, and the rest not only consume a great deal of scarce feed but tend to engage in behavior disruptive to the harmonious functioning of the herd. (This holds true for all types of herds.) And while we never, ever once even considered applying the rule to reconstituting the human population, when you build models like that, who knows to what uses they might be applied by less scrupulous practitioners?

That we never got to try out our dirigiste models is surely no cause for regret by the larger population. In the 1970s, OCDM, having first been transferred to the Defense Department, was ultimately reconstituted as FEMA with a primarily non-nuclear emergency management mission. I do not know if our old models are still refined and maintained in working order by any remnant of FEMA or the Pentagon.

But OCDM's planning efforts were not totally without consequence. The networking weaknesses the planning efforts revealed provided justification for construction of the federal "defense highway" system begun during the Eisenhower administration. They also hastened the rerouting of long-distance telephone lines around major urban areas–and ultimately to the long-line system undergirding today's Internet. And as part of this and other defense planning efforts, contractors developed a host of technologies–video display terminals, electronic printers, remote data links, digitalized photography, innumerable computer design and programming techniques, etc.–that ultimately, if slowly, found their way into the civilian sector.

You may well find it preposterous (as I do) that FEMA aims to operate a secret government that will seize control of the country and its economy. But remember: It's not for lack of planning.

Jodie T. Allen (jodiea@microsoft.com) is Washington editor of Slate and a former editor of The Washington Post's