Accuracy in Media

On March first, the Washington Post lead story was headlined, “Shadow Government Is at Work in Secret.” The article purported to break the news that in the name of the classified “Continuity of Operations Plan,” a cold war contingency in case of nuclear war, the Bush administration was secretly operating a back-up government in a location that the Post agreed to keep secret. This was held up as evidence implying that under the cover of fighting a war on terrorism, the Bush administration was engaged in some sort of dark conspiracy.

The plans include the long-term housing of between seventy-five and a hundred-fifty senior administration officials from various executive branch cabinet offices. The term “shadow government” quickly became “secret government,” as in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s comments that, “None of us knew about the secret government,”. He said this to Tony Snow on Fox News Sunday, citing it as an example of the “chasm that exists” between the Bush administration and Congress when it comes to information on the war. Tony Snow, however, had done his homework, and asked Daschle if he hadn’t actually been to one of the sites since September 11th. “Well,” Daschle replied, “I don’t know if that’s the site..” “I’m told it is,” said Snow, “So now you know.” quickly picked up on this story, and pointed out that news of the so-called Shadow Government had been reported last October in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. And indeed it had. The article spoke in great detail of the plan including as many as two-hundred employees from the federal government. It said they work in “secure facilities outside Washington D.C., as part of a continuity of operations plan. The plan’s purpose: to make sure the U.S. government can operate if cataclysm strikes.”

The program dates back to Ronald Reagan, who set this up for situations of national security emergencies. Congress had held hearings, and appropriated money for it through the various administrations. Following Daschle’s charges of a “secret government,” and that Congress hadn’t been informed, the White House disputed that account, saying “the appropriate people” on Capitol Hill knew about it. House Speaker Dennis Hastert acknowledged having been fully briefed.

In addition, Senator Robert Byrd was briefed by a military official, but after a few minutes Byrd ended the briefing, saying it wasn’t necessary. The Secretary of the Senate and the Senate sergeant at arms, both of whom work for Daschle, acknowledged full briefings.

The air finally came out of this story when Daschle backed down. Four days after the story broke, he went to the White House for a meeting, and spokesman Ari Fleischer announced that they had “reiterated to the Senator information that had previously been provided to people who work for him.” An obviously embarrassed Daschle then announced, “I think there ought to be a cease-fire on who knew what. I’m satisfied a contingency plan is in place that takes into account a pretty dramatic need for succession.” Now we’re just waiting to hear from the Post.

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