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Continuity of Government Condition and the Intelligence Community’s Role

By Rachel Feinstein

As our nation continues to grapple with the effects of COVID-19, including large portions of our local, State, and federal governments closing or moving into limited functionality, is there a plan for government continuity during national emergencies, and if so, what role does the intelligence community (IC) play in that plan? 

In 2016, American Broadcasting Company (ABC) introduced much of the American public to the concept of the designated survivor, in the show of the same name.  The designated survivor is a cabinet member who is kept in a bunker underneath the White House during times where the remainder of the line of succession is gathered in a single space for special events, such as the President’s annual State of the Union Address.  However, the designated survivor is just one piece of the federal government’s overarching National Continuity Policy (NCP), as established under National Security Presidential Directive 51 (NSPD-51) and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 20 (HSPD-20), signed by President George W. Bush on May 4, 2007.  NSPD-51/HSPD-20 established a national policy on continuity of government functions during times of catastrophic emergency, defined under §2(b) as “any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of […] disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy or government functions.” 

At a base level, §5 of NSPD-51/HSPD-20 establishes eight national essential functions (NEF), described as “a subset of government functions that are necessary to lead and sustain the Nation during a time of catastrophic emergency.”  Of those eight NEFs, half of them revolve around defending the nation from enemies, threats, and attacks, both foreign and domestic; and foreign affairs (§5(b), (c), (d), and (e)). The remaining four NEFs revolve around responding to the crisis itself. This significant focus on defense and foreign affairs give a solid indication that the national security sector would be heavily involved in the actual performance of the NCP, should it come to that, but what about its creation and monitoring?

Under the National Continuity Policy Implementation Plan (NCPIP), each cabinet level agency, and a number of individual and independent agencies, are responsible for developing their own internal continuity plans and policies.  However, senior leaders in the greater intelligence community seem to play a larger than expected role in the NCP’s broader implementation, separate from their normal responsibilities as agency heads, on the National Security Council, or in other similar roles. The most obvious example of this are the individuals tasked with overseeing the implementation of the NCP at the national level; rather than a grouping of officials from various parts of the government related to domestic affairs as a whole (i.e. Interior, Energy, Labor, Health and Human Services, etc.), the officials tasked with this job come solely from within the national security sector.  Specifically, §6 of NSPD-51/HSPD-20 notes that “the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism is hereby designated as the National Continuity Coordinator (NCC).  The [NCC], in coordination with the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, […] shall coordinate the development and implementation of continuity policy for executive departments and agencies.  The Continuity Policy Coordination Committee (CPCC), chaired by a Senior Director from the Homeland Security Council staff, designated by the [NCC], shall be the main day-to-day forum for such policy coordination” (emphasis added).

Along with the individuals overseeing implementation of the NCP at the macro level, Chapter 4 of the NCPIP discusses the federal Executive Branch’s coordination and communication with other Non-Federal Governments (NFG) (i.e. state, tribal, and territorial government entities).  In this chapter, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a member of the intelligence community, is tasked with coordinating overall domestic incident management and response procedures.  Further, under Objective 4B DHS is also tasked with providing coordination, guidance, and funding for the implementation and integration of individual continuity plans put in place by NFGs.  Finally, DHS is tasked with providing guidance to members of private sector critical infrastructure owners and operators who are required to establish their own continuity plans in-line with the various government policies. 

In all, the United States government does have a robust plan for continuity of government conditions in the event of a national disaster, and the intelligence community, through DHS and FEMA, plays a substantial role in the implementation and coordination of it.  For more information on the government’s plans specific to the COVID-19 crisis, please see FEMA’s Continuity of Operations Memo.


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