Exclusive: How FEMA Missed the Chance to Be Better Prepared for the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Manhattan on April 6, 2020 as seen from Weehawken, New Jersey. The U.S. COVID-19 death toll has now surpassed 9,000. Kena Betancur/Getty Images

The Federal Emergency Management Agency canceled its national preparedness drill last week—a decision that was probably unavoidable, given the coronavirus pandemic, but one that highlights the missed opportunities to truly prepare.

"The preparedness events that have already been held have helped make our nation more resilient," the Department of Homeland Security insisted in its internal email to emergency managers, saying that the drills, which began last year, would be canceled. FEMA informed nine states and over 50 government organizations, military commands and intelligence agencies around the country that the remainder of National Level Exercise (NLE) 2020, a series of domestic exercises planned to culminate in the second week of May, would not take place.

"Obviously FEMA and the rest of the government is seized with dealing with the real world," says a former NORTHCOM commander. But that senior officer (who lacked permission to speak on the record and requested anonymity) laments that NLE 2020 exposes how much the emergency management apparatus diminishes its effectiveness by spending time "fighting the last war."

NLE 2020 focused on cybersecurity—and not just cybersecurity in general, but a Russian government attack that the war gamers made so extreme that it constituted an attack on the nation, provoking military responses and even contemplation of the use of nuclear weapons. The scenario relegated emergency response to a sideshow.

"Want to understand why, time and again, emergency planners seem to be one step behind every natural and man-made disaster?" the senior officer says. "It's because these so-called national exercises shortchange the basics in favor of the sexier subjects, ones that not coincidentally get senior decision-makers to participate."

The exercise taking place as coronavirus grew had nothing to do with a pandemic. That may have been unavoidable. But, the senior officer says, the government planners who designed NLE 2020 tried to do too much, getting lost in flurry of topical scenarios and unlikely contingencies.

National Level Exercise 2020 (NLEs are held every two years) began last November when in war gaming centers across the country, an "adversary-based" cyberattack started to probe the electrical power infrastructure of the United States. At first, mock intelligence reports said that the hackers were "overseas-based" and "non-state." But then the mock Cyber Command and intelligence agencies agreed that Russian state hackers, directed from the Kremlin, were attacking America.

This description of NLE 2020 and almost two dozen other war games designed around the same scenario come from a sheaf of classified and unclassified plans leaked to Newsweek. The NORTHCOM commander supplied the classified documents.

The NLE 2020 documents include simulated message traffic doled out by the control cell—called the White Cell—who provide scripted bits of intelligence and literally "fake news" to challenge planners and decision-makers. An elaborate scenario, over 400 pages long, describes how the Russian attacks started and escalated, with power plant operators at the local level calling on federal officials to help to protect their utilities. NLE 2020 posited a new scenario, different from the real world probes that Russia and other countries have undertaken. For this war game, a broad attack on electrical power production itself—not distribution facilities—led to a catastrophic overloading and then failure of the entire North American electrical grid.

This electrical-power portion of NLE 2020 is called Binary Blackout and is its own sub-exercise within the larger war game. The cyber attack is at the centerpiece of what the Department of Homeland Security documents say is a set of events that "will lead to a domestic national security emergency with significant impacts on multiple critical infrastructure sectors."

Each of these sectors, and all of the events dreamed up by the exercise authors, then play out in an interlocking set of 20 federal, state and military drills, large and small, that were scheduled to take place simultaneously over a period of seven months. By the time FEMA made the March 29th decision to shut down the whole game, many of these 20 games were already underway or had been completed. Everything was to have culminated in a "Senior Official Exercise" day in mid-May where White House officials and Cabinet members would be gathered to grapple with the most difficult questions, from the evacuation of Washington DC to whether the United States should retaliate against Russia.

Under the classified scenario for the "national security emergency" that was to have played out, the Russian government cyberattack on electrical power plants in New England and Nevada results in a "Catastrophic Power Outage (CPO)" with cascading effects that spread like a virus throughout the country and into Canada. In the game, electrical power grids failed completely in five New England states—in FEMA Region I, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont, while in the West—in FEMA Region IX in Arizona, California, and Nevada—officials scrambled to keep up with the rapidly spreading worm.

According to the Binary Blackout planning documents, within 24 hours of the quickly-spreading blackout, the nation's water supply started to be affected. Pumping stations without back-up generators—or ones that didn't work—further failed, and across the country, water sector performance dropped to as low as 40 percent. High-rise buildings were particularly hit and water was not deemed to be 100 percent safe in almost half of U.S. cities as wastewater began to back up into clean-water systems. The scenario was written to be the largest electrical power catastrophe to ever hit the country. According to the scenario, states requested federal assistance, National Guard units were called out, Washington dusted off its contingency plans and planners playing mayors and governors and even Cabinet officials and the president worked to calm the nation.

NLE 2020 briefings and planning documents call it a complex, adversary-based multidimensional attack that was constructed intentionally to pull in participants from the whole community: all levels of government, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations and community groups. But as full-scale "play" dealt with the rapidly escalating disaster created by a power blackout, in the real world, the coronavirus also started to spread.

In some ways, the senior NORTHCOM officer says, NLE 2020 did provide preparation for the real world. The two-year cycle that culminates in a single event, regardless of the scenario involved, does force planners to grapple with the complications of cross-jurisdictional emergency management and the advent of a catastrophe. What makes the NLE 2020 so frustrating, he says, is that rather than use the Binary Blackout scenario to provide a plausible spark to build cooperation and drill down into the boring details of what needs to be done in a true disaster, the exercise designers instead chose to escalate the Russian component to turn an emergency management drill into a warfare scenario.

According to the documents, once the Russian attack was "attributed" and the civil agencies were on board, accepting that Washington needed to take control, the "national response"—that is, the mock White House, Pentagon and the new cyber warfare bureaus of the American government— wandered away from emergency management into Cold War-like scenarios.

The papers also reveal precisely how there can be one set of preparations going on in the public eye while behind the scenes, another more ominous and secret set of deliberations takes place. For instance, the unclassified papers and briefings intended for state and local governments blandly say that NLE 2020 "includes an option for a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) based threat and the execution of continuity plans with an emphasis on devolution." But the classified briefings prepared for the top government war gamers posit a far more extensive WMD component, as well as the challenges of the federal government responding to civil disturbances, for evacuating Washington, for protecting continuity of government and even imposing martial law.

This split is evident in the coronavirus response. Publicly the Trump administration and the Pentagon say they are merely responding to events, dismissing news stories, including those in Newsweek, about plans for these very contingences as "nonsense."

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on March 24th that "there has been no talk whatsoever of martial law" in responding to coronavirus. "There has been no talk whatsoever of mass quarantines of the United States or any of that other nonsense that is out there."

And yet all of these questions—civil unrest, restrictions on travel, continuity and even martial law —are included in the NLE 2020 decision packets. As the blackout extends into every state and Quebec, the classified scenario posits not just impact on water supply, but a general breakdown of society. The entire health care system collapses: hospitals run out of back-up power, patients are discharged, medications that require refrigeration expire, procedures like dialysis cease, deaths soar. "Civil unrest" is widespread throughout the country, according to the documents, and military commanders are brought in both to enforce quarantines and help suppress violence—but also to establish government in places where civil authority breaks down.

By the end of week two of the NLE 2020 scenario, according to classified documents, public broadcast ceases, the internet goes down, and people are no longer able to charge their cellphones. With most of the public cut off from communications, chaos ensues. Even gas stations that have gasoline can't pump it anymore and the transportation grid grinds to a halt. With no water available except from wells, public hygiene descends into an epidemic of mass infections and disease. The production of foodstuffs ceases, all key staples disappear, farmers have to slaughter their livestock to save the healthy. As the mortality rate climbs, the documents say, civil unrest becomes widespread in every state. And that's only week two.

What to do in each of these sectors—with regard to communications and the internet, with electrical power production and distribution, with public health, with other critical infrastructure utilities and with transportation—is scripted to challenge the thousands of participants throughout the federal government and nine states. Each of these sub-elements has its own exercise that takes place under the NLE 2020 umbrella. They are called Cyber Dawn, Cyber Guard, Cyber Yankee, Cyber Storm, Liberty Eclipse, GridEx, RADICS 7, Ultimate Guardian, Ardent Sentry, Vigilant Shield and Vibrant Response.

It is a smorgasbord of civil agency exercises and military war games all based on the same Binary Blackout scenario and all part of NLE 2020: "distinct phases of a connected threat," as the documents say.

Each of these smaller-scale games is intended to engage a different sector of the economy, different agencies and different themes. For NLE 2020, many of these games had already concluded or were ongoing by last month, when the overall exercise was called off. These included games called Clear Path, Crimson Contagion, Power Play, Shaken Fury and Resilient Grid.

And while all of these exercises were taking place or were getting ready to take the stage, in compartmentalized circles above Top Secret, at least three other exercises, Vital Archer, Bronze Ram and Eagle Horizon were running simultaneously, each involving some secret government preparation, including the use of special operations forces to protect the Washington leadership and military confrontations with the civilian population.

The culmination of NLE 2020 was Eagle Horizon, planned for May 14-15. In this classified exercise, continuity of government and senior decision-making was the focus. The classified White Cell materials show the president evacuating out of Washington on a Marine Corps helicopter, eventually boarding the National Airborne Operations Center where he tele-conferences with his top military advisers, placing nuclear forces on alert and deciding how to confront Russia.

None of this is speculation; none is what Secretary of Defense Esper dismisses as "nonsense." These are all real exercises, real scenarios and real preparations of the gigantic homeland security and emergency response apparatus, written by government officials from every agency from FEMA to the Department of Justice.

The way NLE 2020 was structured, there weren't just two games occurring side-by-side, one unclassified for the civil governments and the other classified for the military and the secret agencies. There's also a pecking order in these large war games.

"There is a varsity and a junior varsity in the national security community," the NORTHCOM commander says, "and it has to do with levels of classification and the gravity of the scenario." Where the varsity takes the field, he says, everything else get shunted aside, the definition of what is important shaped by how highly classified it is, more than by how likely it is. "Where does NLE 2020 end?" the senior officer says. "It's on the question of how effective our retaliation is against Russia, and whether the president will order a cyber or a nuclear strike.

"This is the road that leads those in charge of U.S. emergency management to think of everything except for ventilators and face masks."