EXCLUSIVE: INSIDE THE MILITARY’S TOP SECRET PLANS IF CORONAVIRUS CRIPPLES THE GOVERNMENT

Friday, March 20, 2020
By Paul Martin

BY WILLIAM M. ARKIN
NEWSWEEK.COM
3/18/20

Even as President Trump says he tested negative for coronavirus, the COVID-19 pandemic raises the fear that huge swaths of the executive branch or even Congress and the Supreme Court could also be disabled, forcing the implementation of “continuity of government” plans that include evacuating Washington and “devolving” leadership to second-tier officials in remote and quarantined locations.

But Coronavirus is also new territory, where the military itself is vulnerable and the disaster scenarios being contemplated — including the possibility of widespread domestic violence as a result of food shortages — are forcing planners to look at what are called “extraordinary circumstances”.

Above-Top Secret contingency plans already exist for what the military is supposed to do if all the Constitutional successors are incapacitated. Standby orders were issued more than three weeks ago to ready these plans, not just to protect Washington but also to prepare for the possibility of some form of martial law.

According to new documents and interviews with military experts, the various plans – codenamed Octagon, Freejack and Zodiac – are the underground laws to ensure government continuity. They are so secret that under these extraordinary plans, “devolution” could circumvent the normal Constitutional provisions for government succession, and military commanders could be placed in control around America.

“We’re in new territory,” says one senior officer, the entire post-9/11 paradigm of emergency planning thrown out the window. The officer jokes, in the kind of morbid humor characteristic of this slow-moving disaster, that America had better learn who Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy is.

He is the “combatant commander” for the United States and would in theory be in charge if Washington were eviscerated. That is, until a new civilian leader could be installed.

‘We’re in territory we’ve never been in before’

What happens, government expert Norman Ornstein asked last week, if so many members of Congress come down with the coronavirus that the legislature cannot meet or cannot muster a quorum? After 9/11, Ornstein and others, alarmed by how little Washington had prepared for such possibilities, created a bipartisan Continuity of Government Commission to examine precisely these and other possibilities.

It has been a two-decade long futile effort, Ornstein says, with Congress uninterested or unable to either pass new laws or create working procedures that would allow emergency and remote operations. The rest of the federal government equally is unprepared to operate if a pandemic were to hit the very people called upon to lead in an emergency. That is why for the first time, other than planning for the aftermath of a nuclear war, extraordinary procedures are being contemplated.

In the past, almost every imagined contingency associated with emergency preparedness has assumed civil and military assistance coming from the outside. One military officer involved in continuity planning calls it a “cavalry” mentality: that military assistance is requested or ordered after local civil authority has been exhausted.

“There might not be an outside,” the officer says, asking that she not be named because she is speaking about sensitive matters.

In recognition of the equal vulnerability of military forces, the Pentagon has instituted unprecedented restrictions on off-base travel. Last Wednesday it restricted most overseas travel for 60 days, and then on Friday issued supplemental domestic guidance that essentially keeps all uniformed personnel on or near military bases. There are exceptions, including travel that is “mission-essential,” the Pentagon says.

Mission essential in this regard applies to the maze of more than a dozen different secret assignments, most of them falling under three larger contingency plans:

CONPLAN 3400, or the military’s plan for “homeland defense,” if America itself is a battlefield.
CONPLAN 3500, “defense support of civil authorities,” where the military assists in an emergency short of armed attack on the nation.
CONPLAN 3600, military operations in the National Capital Region and continuation of government, under which the most-secret plans to support continuity are nested.

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