Continuity of Government (COG)

Updated: April 23, 2021
In this Article

    In the event of an attack on Washington D.C., what types of planning exists for continuing the operation of the federal government, even if evacuations or other extreme measures are required?

    This issue is addressed as Continuity of Government (COG) planning, which contains a number of contingency plans for running the federal government remotely during a time of crisis.
    You can find information on various aspects of this type of planning across a wide range of government official sites including FEMA, the White House, and many others.

    What Is The Continuity Of Government Plan?

    As you might guess, a COG plan involves many moving parts and there may be aspects that affect local government, state government operations, and others either in conjunction with or similar to federal designs to insure the government runs even during a time of attack or crisis.

    At the federal level, we find information published by FEMA that gives a good overall look at what it means to enact such planning.

    Thanks to documents such as Continuity of Operations in the National Continuity Policy Implementation Plan, and National Security Presidential Directive-51 and Homeland Security Presidential Directive-20 there is a framework “within individual executive departments and agencies to ensure that Primary Mission Essential Functions…continue to be performed during a wide range of emergencies, including localized acts of nature, accidents and technological or attack-related emergencies.”

    Authorization For COG

    National Security Presidential Directive 51 establishes “a comprehensive national policy on the continuity of Federal Government structures and operations and a single National Continuity Coordinator responsible for coordinating the development and implementation of Federal continuity policies”.

    This is the policy which assigns “National Essential Functions,” for federal agencies while at the same time offering guidance for state governments and below to create an “integrated national continuity program”.

    Another document, the National Continuity Plan, outlines specific procedures to establish this continuity but contains some interesting language about how such actions must be taken. One concept that has early emphasis in that Plan is the notion of Enduring Constitutional Government.

    This, according to the National Continuity Plan, refers to carrying out such continuing operations “with proper respect for the constitutional separation of powers among the branches, to preserve the constitutional framework under which the Nation is governed and the capability of all three branches of government to execute constitutional responsibilities and provide for orderly succession, appropriate transition of leadership, and interoperability and support of the National Essential Functions during a catastrophic emergency.”

    This wording might not have anticipated a climate of fundamental mistrust of the government’s motives for taking such broad actions during a time of crisis, but it certainly comes in handy to dispel conspiracy memes about suspension of the Constitution, the use of American troops to enforce domestic laws, etc.

    The National Continuity Plan places an emphasis on ensuring that any such plans are carried out with respect for Constitutional constraints.

    What The National Continuity Plan Includes

    In the event that a major catastrophe or act of war occurs in what is defined as the National Capital Region, every agency within that region including the White House is required to have detailed Continuity of Operations plans ready to use should they be needed.

    Part of that planning? The ability for the President of the United States to authorize a shadow government that is permitted to operate temporarily in order to ensure continued functioning of the federal government. This power was used during the 9/11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon as a precaution.

    Each federal agency identifies members of its ranks that are meant to be part of an Emergency Relocation Group who are assigned to an “alternate secure location” to carry out essential governmental functions when the continuity plan is engaged.

    Evacuations Under COG

    When the order comes to evacuate and begin Continuity-of-Government plans, a series of evacuations occur. The staff identified to be sent to alternate locations will start moving to them, and certain White House leadership is evacuated according to a general plan listed on the White House official site.

    The President of the United States evacuates through the White House Tunnel System to the Marine One hangar at the Anacostia Naval Support Facility. After boarding a special aircraft (the E-4B National Airborne Operations Center has served this purpose in the past) POTUS could go to any number of alternate locations including Presidential Emergency Facilities at Mount Weather, Site R, the underground bunker at Camp David, or a bunker located at Offutt Air Force Base. Others may exist, but are classified.

    The Presidential line of succession is also evacuated–this is the job of NORTHCOM, which transports everyone in the line of succession including the Vice President and others to classified locations scattered around the United States.

    Ensuring Essential Functions Of Government

    There is a list of essential government functions identified as necessary under COG planning. They include, as defined by the White House official site:

    • Ensure the continued functioning of the three separate branches of government
    • Provide leadership visible to the Nation and the world
    • Defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic
    • Maintain and foster effective relationships with foreign nations
    • Protect against threats to the homeland and bring perpetrators to justice
    • Respond to and recover from domestic consequences of an attack
    • Protect and stabilize the Nation’s economy
    • Provide for critical national health, safety, and welfare needs of the United States


    The Continuity of Government Readiness Conditions (COGCON) System

    Similar in some ways to the DEFCON or Defense Conditions system, there are varying levels of readiness that are assigned depending on the threat level to the National Capital Region. Only the President of the United States may change these levels, known as COGCON Levels for short. They include:

    COGCON 4: The condition closest to “normal” or “all clear”. This level indicates federal executive branch government employees reporting at their normal work locations. This level requires the maintenance of an alternate facility and readiness training in the event that a higher level is required. Even at this level the continuity should be useable within 12 hours.

    COGCON 3: When the President assigns this level, federal Advance Relocation Teams begin staffing alternate locations, making sure these are ready to be used when needed; the order to occupy these alternate sites has not happened yet but the continuity plan should be fully deployable within eight hours.

    COGCON 2: Presidential declaration of COGCON 2 requires a deployment of up to 75% of the entire Emergency Relocation Group continuity staff to alternate locations. This level requires those using alternate locations to evaluate their readiness to “prepare to perform their organization’s essential functions in the event of a catastrophic emergency.” The COG plan should be fully employable at this stage within four hours.

    COGCON 1: The President of the United States orders full deployment of those in the COG staff “to perform the organization’s essential functions from alternate facilities either as a result of, or in preparation for, a catastrophic emergency.” All alternative sites should report as being operational within two hours.

    COG Planning

    How serious is the Continuity of Government policy? The federal government doesn’t take the “it might never happen” approach. FEMA literature states “Continuity requirements shall be incorporated into daily operations of all executive departments and agencies” in response to an “asymmetric threat environment.” You can safely interpret “asymmetric threat” as “terrorism threat.”

    That FEMA literature goes on to emphasize that ALL continuity-of-government planning “shall be based on the assumption that no such warning will be received” ahead of an attack or catastrophe that might require the use of COG plans.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team