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Friday, 1 March, 2002, 12:13 GMT
Washington sets up shadow government
President Bush (centre) flanked by Colin Powell (l) and Donald Rumsfeld (r)
Contingency plan was originated by Bush's predecessors
An emergency parallel government has been set up in the United States to try to ensure that federal rule could continue in the event of a catastrophic attack on Washington, US officials say.

The operation was activated after the 11 September attacks but planning dates back to the Cold War era.

We take this issue extraordinarily seriously... In the case of the use of a weapon of mass destruction, the federal government would be able to do its job and continue to provide key services and respond

White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joseph W Hagin

It is reported to involve 70 or more officials drawn from all departments, depending on the perceived level of threat.

Those taking part live and work underground for long spells at secret fortified locations on the East Coast.

The core group of federal managers would put into effect orders from the president or his constitutional successor.

"Bunker duty"

The plan for a shadow government has been implemented now because of heightened fears that Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network might obtain a portable nuclear weapon.

An unnamed senior official told Associated Press news agency that while US intelligence had no specific knowledge of such a weapon, the risk was great enough to warrant activation of the plan.

Dick Cheney's survival ensures constitutional succession, but he can't run the country by himself

US official
He said President George W Bush did not foresee ever needing to turn over government functions to the secret operation, but believed it was prudent to put the plan into action in the light of the war against terrorism and persistent threats of future attacks.

Other officials, who spoke to the Washington Post newspaper, said the back-up government consisted of anything from 70 to 150 people at two principal locations on the East Coast.

Once activated for what some call "bunker duty", they live and work underground 24 hours a day, away from their families.

Those deployed for the operation are not allowed to tell anyone where they are going or why. "They're on a 'business trip', that's all," one official was quoted as saying.

Out of touch

Although it does not identify the sites, the Washington Post says they make use of geological features to render them highly secure. They are well stocked with food, water, medicine and other supplies and are capable of generating their own power.

Osama Bin Laden
Officials fear Bin Laden's network may have nuclear weapons

However, in their first significant operational use, managers discovered that computers were "several generations" behind current models and could not link to government databases.

There were also too few telephone lines and secure audio and video links to the rest of government.

The newspaper said that only the executive branch is represented in the full-time shadow administration. Other branches - such as Congress and the judiciary - have separate continuity plans but do not maintain a 24-hour presence in fortified facilities.

The secret operation complements the absence of Vice President Dick Cheney for much of the last five months. One official said Mr Cheney's survival ensures constitutional succession "but he can't run the country by himself".

"We take this issue extraordinarily seriously, and are committed to doing as thorough a job as possible to ensure the ongoing operations of the federal government," said Joseph W Hagin, White House deputy chief of staff.

"In the case of the use of a weapon of mass destruction, the federal government would be able to do its job and continue to provide key services and respond," he said.

The BBC's Tom Carver
"On the morning of Sep 11th, they activated the shadow government"
See also:

26 Feb 02 | Americas
US closes 'disinformation' unit
24 Feb 02 | Middle East
Blair and Bush 'to discuss Iraq action'
28 Feb 02 | Americas
US seeks Bin Laden DNA
24 Jan 02 | Americas
Big boost for US military spending
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