White House officials take charge of COOP

New security directive outlines steps that agencies must take to prepare for disasters


White House officials gave federal agencies their marching orders last week for keeping the government operating during a national crisis with a new executive order — Homeland Security Presidential Directive 20.

The directive, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others have been working on for 15 months, details activities in 15 areas that the Office of Management and Budget, the Homeland Security Department and other federal agencies must carry out to prepare the government for any disaster. The directive’s provisions include naming a national continuity coordinator in the White House, naming an official in each agency for continuity-of-operations (COOP) planning and developing communications standards and architectures to ensure interoperability.

Frances Townsend, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, likely will fill the coordinator’s role.

“We need to evolve, and that is what this document does,” said Charles Hopkins, FEMA’s assistant administrator for National Continuity Programs.

Bush administration officials said they hope to update a Cold War plan by July for keeping the government running and, in the process, declassify closely held information about how the agencies can continue to operate during natural or man-made disasters.

“Very few people had access to the most authoritative continuity of government and operations document,” Hopkins said. “Our ability to send the same message to the entire executive branch and liaison with other branches of our government was limited.”

White House officials will develop a National Continuity Plan with specific timelines and implementation goals in the next 90 days, said Ann Buckingham, FEMA’s deputy assistant administrator for National Continuity Programs.

The directive comes more than five years after the 2001 terrorist attacks and almost two years after Hurricane Katrina, leaving some policy experts to question why administration officials took so long to issue the order.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been frustrated by the lack of progress in ensuring that agencies are prepared.

“On its face, Rep. Davis thinks this is a wise move, as it ensures compliance from agencies that in the past pretty much ignored FEMA” and the Homeland Security Department, said David Marin, minority staff director of that committee. “We’re nearly six years removed from Sept. 11 and it’s been four-and-a-half years since Davis began pressing the federal government to take COOP more seriously.”

But now a directive unequivocally tells agencies what they need to do for COOP, Hopkins said. “What folks wanted to do was validate programs and develop an organizational structure from the top down,” he said. “This policy builds on lessons learned and clarifies the roles and responsibilities for folks who hadn’t been considered previously.”

James Kennedy, a COOP expert and a principal consultant with Alcatel-Lucent, said the implementation of the directive will be critical. Like the Federal Information Security Management Act, Kennedy said, the directive will raise the importance of COOP and continuity- of-government planning, but how much still is unclear.
COOP report cards could be nextRep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wants to know how well-prepared agencies are for the next disaster. After some wrangling to get documents from the Homeland Security Department, the Government Accountability Office is reviewing the results of the TopOff exercise held in June 2006.

Continuity of operations (COOP) was a major portion of that exercise, and agencies were graded and measured on their performance, said David Marin, minority staff director of that committee.

“Rep. Davis is anxious to see what progress has been made since the last [TopOff] report,” Marin said. “He expects that such a federal agency COOP measurement will now be an annual exercise, akin perhaps to the Federal Information Security Management Act scorecards.”

Marin said the GAO report will completed in the near future.

— Jason Miller

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