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Category Archives: American CoupImage
In the Event of an Attack, Who’s Minding DC?
Washington’s security would be up to a patchwork of military commands and law-enforcement agencies.
Washingtonian Magazine, October 2013
If an unauthorized plane or a cruise missile sneaked into Washington airspace, the last line of defense would fall to soldiers under the 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, headquartered at an armory at 3111 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The large windowless building has a sign that says AMERICA’S SHIELD, but there’s no perimeter fence and only waist-high Jersey barriers stand at three of its four entrances. The fourth is open to traffic, without even a gate arm to regulate entry.
The reason for the lax security may be that Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard isn’t in DC. It’s in Anderson, South Carolina.
Arrangements for Washington’s air defenses are classified, of course, but according to both published plans and documents I’ve obtained, our protection against rogue attacks has long depended on a shadow world of overlapping commands and jurisdictions that overlay the capital region and extend far beyond it. In the 12 years since American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, the top-level organization responsible for super-emergencies has become more complicated as our national-security apparatus has exploded in size. The Program, as this group is known (short for Program Coordination Division, its name before responsibility shifted from FEMA to the White House), is now a broad interagency network comprising military and civilian functions. One fact about the Program, however, has not changed: There’s no single person who understands it, no one really controls it, and no one is really in charge.
No territory has as many watchers as the area called the National Capital Region (NCR)—originally consisting of the District and the surrounding counties but repeatedly enlarged to cover sensitive sites as far away as Pennsylvania. Fighter jets, on alert 24-7, scramble on the orders of a command center at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, on the Potomac River opposite Reagan National Airport. Bolling reports to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, which in turn answers to the main command in Colorado. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and Park Police helicopters stand ready to intercept “low and slow” movers. Faster-moving threats are the concern of that armory in South Carolina, which oversees antimissile batteries around DC, manned by personnel from North Dakota, Ohio, Florida, and Mississippi who take rotating stints in the NCR.
These lines of command merge at the Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region at Fort Mc-Nair, near the Jefferson Memorial, and ultimately report to the Secretary of Defense. On paper, it all seems perfectly prudent and redundant. In an actual attack, though, the various security forces would implement their contingency plans while officials in the Program’s org chart consulted code-red envelopes and attempted to assert control.
In the case of a terrorist act involving, say, weapons of mass destruction, the Program would go into action, directing the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Energy Department, and a host of others, even as the DC government executed its own “homeland security” plan involving hundreds of federal agencies and police departments.
The best analogy for the Program is Wall Street: a collection of institutions whose common interests supposedly allocate resources efficiently. Five years ago, we got to see how Wall Street handled a crisis. How did that work for you?
William Arkin is a national-security expert, a former Army intelligence officer, and the author of more than a dozen books, including his latest, American Coup: How a Terrified Government Is Destroying the Constitution.
This article appears in the October 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
State of Emergency
Rutland Herald, Sunday, September 22, 2013
In case you missed it, it’s National Preparedness Month, one of those earnest government PR campaigns that is half propaganda and half patronage.
For the Department of Homeland Security, which also is celebrating its 10th anniversary, it’s a bittersweet month. The post- 9/11 department, which has established a permanent foothold in Washington, comes in for constant criticism and has little actual authority.
But it has also sold the idea of the need for a whole-of-nation, whole-of-community approach to domestic security, and that idea successfully enlists more and more normal Americans into vastly expanded ranks of national first-responders.
The impact at the state and local level has been profound. From California to Maine, and here in Vermont, terrorism task forces, homeland security departments, and intelligence fusion centers mimic Big Brother.
Even the state National Guard, venerable offspring of citizen militias that predate the United States, is not just a local response force or called out for federal service overseas. The Guard is also increasingly reoriented as a regional and national homeland response force, less and less the governor’s reserve or connected to the local community, more and more an undifferentiated federal government adjunct.
The specter of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction hangs over all of this — it was after all, why the Department of Homeland Security was created in the first place. Yet the real need at the local level remains an Irene and not an Iraq.
That’s why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in all of the swag emanating from the feds promoting National Preparedness Month, there isn’t a word about terrorism. “We as individuals and communities must do our part to become safer by following some commonsense advice,” FEMA’s Ready Campaign urges.
In other words, it doesn’t matter what the threat is. It just matters that the American public feels threatened enough to either join in the ranks or stay obediently out of the way.
If it were only preparation for hurricanes we were talking about, none of this hyper-preparedness would threaten any of our liberties or challenge our system of federalism. That system, under the Constitution, places police powers in the hands of the local community and gives states the authority to ask for federal assistance rather than have it imposed. Yet for the sake of national security and its baby brother, homeland security, both principles have been subtly reversed in the past decade.
Syria may seem so distant to Vermonters, and a concern only played out in Washington. But since Washington unquestioningly asserts that terrorism and weapons of mass destruction trump every other concern, that’s where the resources go — even almost a decade after the abysmal response to Hurricane Katrina showed the dangers of neglecting day-to-day needs.
In Vermont, with a northern border and a significant federal presence given how small the state is, all of the “security” and response levers of the state are increasingly pushed to be militarized and hierarchical under national security command.
It’s not just federal dollars and the names of organizations. It’s a way of thinking and organizing ourselves that shortchanges civilian society and shifts the emphasis from building a more resilient country to preparing for its inevitable collapse.
If you missed National Preparedness Month, perhaps it is because you are not part of the 60 million Americans, about one-third of the adult population ages 20-64, whom the Department of Homeland Security counts as part of the regimented conglomeration of troops, government workers, first-responders, private-sector enlistees and civilian volunteers — a gigantic all-hazards reserve trained in everything from storm spotting and first aid to animal rescue and crowd control.
Precisely because preparedness for Washington’s priority concerns and fears is more important than the need (or the focus) of the actual readiness for real threats, intelligence collectors (and increasingly state and local police as new spies) need to feed a constant search for signs of disturbance.
Of course, there are real terrorists and criminals already on the radar screen of the authorities, but in this world, everyone who isn’t friendly is a potential enemy, that is, in a post-enemy kind of way.
As these ginormous databases of potential threats become available to state authorities, and as collection devices such as license plate readers and drones begin the proliferate to feed the insatiable appetite for intelligence information, Vermonters should ask if this emergency apparatus, set up with such panic after 9/11, still serves our interests, or even the national interest, any longer.
William M. Arkin, who lives in South Pomfret, is author of “American Coup: How a Terrified Government is Destroying the Constitution” and co-author of the national bestseller “Top Secret America.”