Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Civil Defense Legacy

[This article was published in the February 2004 issue of the Journal
Of Civil Defense, Volume 37, Issue #2, pp. 3-6. The Journal is published by the American Civil Defense Association (TACDA), P.O. Box 1057, 118 Court Street, Starke Florida 32091, Toll-free (800) 425-5397 or Direct (904) 964-5397, Online at
It is also available as a reprint at]


By William R. Cumming
[The Vacation Lane Group]

With completion of the first fifteen months since the signing of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Public Law 107-296 (November 25, 2002) it becomes timely to assess whether the legacy of the civil defense programs, functions, and activities stimulated by the enactment of the Federal Civil Defense Act, Public Law 81-920, in the early 1950’s has continued to impact current homeland security thinking. It is also important to understand the legacy in order to be able to capture what is and is not useful in the long-term struggle against terrorism and prevention and threats of employment of weapons of mass destruction. It must be remembered that the perceived greatest threat during the life of the FCDA was strategic nuclear attack as opposed to WMD threats or employment by terrorists. It is argued, however, that some of the programs, functions, and activities of the civil defense structure and its research have value in the new milieu. It might even make for greater clarity of both administration and public perceptions if the current organizational title of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as it exists in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) namely the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate be renamed the Civil Defense Directorate.

First, from the standpoint of personnel and organization, no current leadership either in DHS or elsewhere exists that served in an appointive or civil service capacity in those programs, functions, or activities authorized and appropriated pursuant to Public Law 81-920. Why? The Civil Defense programs, functions and activities were housed in the Department of the Army until 1972 when the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency became an independent civil agency within the Pentagon reporting to the Secretary of Defense as opposed to the Secretary of the Army. Rather than strengthening the advocacy of civil defense, this represented the abandonment by the Secretary of the Army (pre-Goldwater-Nichols 1986) of the civil defense advocacy role. Left to advocacy by a relatively junior executive level appointee, John Davis (former governor of North Dakota), the civil defense programs, functions and activities were about to be impacted by the fallout from Watergate. As will be discussed, one of the most important civil-military links was now left to the civilian side of government to nurture and protect. Perhaps this breach could even be analyzed in having fallout for current military operations in Iraq. A subject for discussion elsewhere.

As of 1972, DCPA had approximately 1400 personnel down from its peak strength of about 1700 in the late 1960’s. In 1974, lack of support from the Ford administration resulted in a significant collapse in the effort to defend civil defense in the budget wars. The result a significant RIF (Reduction in Force) for DCPA in 1974 and 1977.

Significantly, several titles of the Civil Defense Act were allowed to lapse. Including the title cross-referencing the Defense Production Act of 1950. Later these lapsed titles would be incorporated into standby emergency legislation along with lapsed titles of the Defense Production Act of 1950, as a standby legislative package called the “Defense Resources Act.” Although briefed to Congressional staff in the early 1980’s, this package was never formally submitted to Congress although it was played in major REX-ALPHA and BRAVO exercises from 1981-88. These were major Pentagon mobilization exercises designed to test civil-military interface and for other purposes.

By the time FEMA was augmented by civil defense assets (July 15, 1979) in Executive Order 12148, civil defense personnel transferred by OMB determination order numbered less than 1000 (still the largest transfer of personnel into the new agency). Funding which had never exceeded $250M had diminished to just over $100M.

Primarily through egotism and ignorance in the White House, the transferred civil defense personnel, even though they dominated the higher civil service positions in FEMA, were regarded as a budgetary problem because of the prejudice of the defense budget examiners in OMB, particularly those managing the 050 accounts and this prejudice was also reflected in the President’s reorganization project team that worked the FEMA reorganization (Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978). Additionally, in the fall of 1981, with the formation of the State and Local Programs Directorate (which lasted until November 1993) the civil defense program was largely considered as a preparedness grant program that could be used to assist state and local governments. To the extent that policy drivers existed in the FCDA as amended, various Presidential Decision Directives or National Security Directives were issued in an attempt to vitiate the civil defense agenda. The amendment of Public Law 81-920 in 1981 had authorized so-called “dual use” of civil defense assets for both nuclear attack planning and natural disaster preparedness. It also specifically authorized program assets to be utilized in enhancing offsite safety in privately operated nuclear power stations. The Armed Services Committees of the Congress had given DCPA administrative discretion to adopt “dual use” as early as 1975 but the administration had chosen not to pursue this concept aggressively. Even now, “dual use” transformed into a debate over whether DHS should be “all-hazards” absorbs much intellectual capital in DHS. In 1993, one year before repeal of Public Law 81-920, the statute was amended to mandate “all-hazards” the transformed term from “Dual use”.

No standby Executive Orders (PEAD’s) or other emergency actions except the standby legislation mentioned above were predicated on Public Law 81-920 after FEMA began operations. Various National Security Directives were issued by President’s Carter, Regan, and Bush (41) in an effort to correlate civil defense with strategic doctrine, but these essentially were watered down versions of the civil defense statute as it existed prior to the loss of the earlier titles. Since only OMB and congressionally funded programs, functions, and activities (not unfunded actions by the National Security Council and its staff), had significance the potential of the civil defense programs, functions, and activities diminished.

Perhaps, the fact that the civil defense budget was made part of the VA-HUD appropriations bill in 1980 and no longer part of the DOD appropriation was additional reason for DOD to have diminished interest in civil defense. Also, up until repeal of the act, at least one Associate Director of FEMA was confirmed by the Senate Armed Services Committee. After repeal, no Associate Director had their nomination reviewed by Senate Armed Services. Additionally, repeal led to lapse of any direct oversight by the Armed Services Committees of oversight of FEMA.
It also ended the annual rite of a senior DOD official testifying on behalf of civil defense authorizations in the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. Also, a Congressionally mandated report asking that the Executive Branch thoroughly analyze and provide any needed modifications to the civil defense program resulted in a March 1992 report entitled “Disaster Preparedness” that led to the statutory enactment of all-hazard use of the FCDA in public law 103-160 and the repeal a year later in public law 103-337. It should be noted that some would argue that the FCDA was not repealed since significant portions were retained as a new Title VI of the Robert T. Stafford Emergency Assistance and Disaster Relief Act. The Clinton Administration used the change in oversight to redirect the primary energies of FEMA to natural disasters. This redirection seems to have not prevented the end of FEMA’s role as an independent agency post 9/11 by its incorporation into the Department of Homeland Security by Public Law 107-296 November 25, 2002.