by Jon Elliston
"Are you familiar with FEMA? What the Federal Emergency Management Agency's real power is?" So asked scientist Dr. Al Kurtzweil, a character in the blockbuster film The X-Files: Fight the Future, who issued an impassioned plea to FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder to wake up and smell the conspiracy coffee.
The 1998 movie projected the paranoia and intrigue of the smash TV show onto the big screen and stirred tremors of concern in Washington, D.C. FEMA, which plays a role in various conspiracy theories about secret plans for martial law in the United States, went so far as to disseminate a public affairs guidance on how to respond to allegations voiced in the movie.
The fact that FEMA was compelled to craft a response raises some curious questions for both fans and political researchers. The X-Files is famous for venturing into shadowy realms, but when all is said and done, this is just a fun flick, right? So why did FEMA take the unusual public relations measure? As Dossier tracked down the details, we learned that while FEMA probably won't be initiating a federal crackdown any time soon, the agency can be mighty touchy -- and staunchly secretive -- about its plans for what to do when a "man-made" disaster occurs.
Most of FEMA's attention is devoted to the tedious task of providing relief and renewal to communities struck by storms, floods and other natural calamities. When hurricanes ravage or wild-fires consume, FEMA arrives to help pick up the pieces, distribute aid, and construct emergency dwellings. Sounds safe so far... but then there's the hidden chapter in the FEMA story.
It was in the early 1980s, during the first years of the Reagan administration, when FEMA delved into controversial pursuits that tainted the agency with suspicions that linger to this day. President Reagan had selected an old crony, Louis Giuffrida, to serve as FEMA director. Reagan and Guiffrida had originally hooked up during the protest movements of the Vietnam War era. While serving as governor of California, Reagan searched for methods to contain the rising tide of dissent. He turned to Guiffrida, a former National Guard officer with a penchant for population control. Under their leadership, the state government concocted and sometimes implemented draconian anti-subversive plans.
With this team in power in Washington, it wasn't long before federal policy began to feel the tug of totalitarianism. Giuffrida established strict order at FEMA and then set about establishing a predominant role for the agency in worst-case disaster planning.
In October 1984, just as Reagan was about to run for re-election, journalist Jack Anderson dropped a bombshell in one of his columns. He had discovered that FEMA officials drafted "standby legislation" to present to Congress if the United States was faced with domestic chaos or a state of total war (presumably against the Soviet Union). The proposal, according to Anderson, would have stripped away the essentials of U.S. democracy; it would "suspend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, effectively eliminate private property, abolish free enterprise, and generally clamp Americans in a totalitarian vise."
Suddenly FEMA wasn't Mr. Nice Guy any more. Additional press reports heightened the concerns of the growing number of FEMA-watchers. It became public knowledge that FEMA administered "continuity of government" facilities such as the one beneath Virginia's Mount Weather, a massive underground complex that would shelter national leaders in the event life above ground should become too hazardous.
Fears about FEMA's functions flared up again in 1987, when the Miami Herald reported that Lt. Col. Oliver North, the Reagan White House aide who stood at center stage of the Iran-Contra scandal, had worked with FEMA on top-secret projects such as military exercises designed to test the government's capacity to round up refugees and rabble-rousers.
Giuffrida, the apparent mastermind of the plan, stepped down from the position of "emergency czar" in 1985. However, concerns about the potential use of FEMA as a vehicle for martial law are today more widespread than ever, due in part to the portrayal of the agency in The X-Files.
FEMA, for one, is thinking about that. On June 24, 1998, Al Kamen of the Washington Post reported that FEMA officials issued a "public affairs guidance" to help the agency deal with "the potential for an increase in queries from the general public and the news media regarding FEMA's national security programs, due to recent Hollywood film releases." The guidance did not identify the movies by name, but Fight the Future was apparently the primary concern.
"While entertaining and somewhat humorous to the employees of FEMA, some moviegoers may not understand that they are watching a fictional portrayal of the agency," the document said. Some Americans have come to "believe we have a somewhat sinister role," it noted, suggesting that "it is not realistic to think that we can convince them otherwise and it is advisable not to enter into debate on the subject."
The guidance advised against a war of words with suspicious citizens, but urged FEMA officers to make one thing clear: "You may emphatically state that FEMA does not have, never has had, nor will ever seek, the authority to suspend the Constitution."
Kamen's brief report in the Washington Post quoted key parts of the document, but the full text was unavailable to the public. Morrie Goodman, FEMA's Director of Communications and a co-author of the guidance, denied our initial request for the document, saying it was an internal communication and "not for the outside world." However, we then obtained it and a prior FEMA guidance on national security matters with Freedom of Information Act requests.
The papers open a window into the exclusive realm of government emergency public affairs planning and demonstrate the dilemmas of officials in a democracy who insist, on the one hand, that they have nothing to hide, and on the other that they cannot discuss certain sensitive matters.
Is FEMA's concern much ado about nothing? The X-Files is a work of fiction, and certainly most Americans understand this. Besides, most citizens know it would take much more than a subversive piece of legislation to overturn Constitutional government in the United States. It is difficult to imagine the type of crisis that would cause Americans to forfeit their system of government to FEMA-rule.
Yet, as these internal documents confirm, the full story of FEMA's involvement with contingency plans for martial law is still not available to the public. And until it is, speculation fed by popular TV shows and movies (and a few good investigative news reports) will fill the void. By keeping tight-lipped about "continuity of government," FEMA is saddling itself with a continual public relations problem that even the agency's best spin doctors can't resolve.
© Copyright 1999 ParaScope, Inc.