A sobering report from William M. Arkin at Newsweek today on U.S. government contingency plans in the event that the pandemic were to get much worse:

Even as President Trump says he tested negative for coronavirus, the COVID-19 pandemic raises the fear that huge swaths of the executive branch or even Congress and the Supreme Court could also be disabled, forcing the implementation of “continuity of government” plans that include evacuating Washington and “devolving” leadership to second-tier officials in remote and quarantined locations. …

According to new documents and interviews with military experts, the various plans – codenamed Octagon, Freejack and Zodiac – are the underground laws to ensure government continuity. They are so secret that under these extraordinary plans, “devolution” could circumvent the normal Constitutional provisions for government succession, and military commanders could be placed in control around America. …

What happens, government expert Norman Ornstein asked last week, if so many members of Congress come down with the coronavirus that the legislature cannot meet or cannot muster a quorum? After 9/11, Ornstein and others, alarmed by how little Washington had prepared for such possibilities, created a bipartisan Continuity of Government Commission to examine precisely these and other possibilities.

It has been a two-decade long futile effort, Ornstein says, with Congress uninterested or unable to either pass new laws or create working procedures that would allow emergency and remote operations. The rest of the federal government equally is unprepared to operate if a pandemic were to hit the very people called upon to lead in an emergency. That is why for the first time, other than planning for the aftermath of a nuclear war, extraordinary procedures are being contemplated. …

When might the military’s “emergency authority” be needed? Traditionally, it’s thought of after a nuclear device goes off in an American city. But now, planners are looking at military response to urban violence as people seek protection and fight over food. And, according to one senior officer, in the contingency of the complete evacuation of Washington.

Under Defense department regulations, military commanders are authorized to take action on their own – in extraordinary circumstances – where “duly constituted local authorities are unable to control the situation.” The conditions include “large-scale, unexpected civil disturbances” involving “significant loss of life or wanton destruction of property.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff codified these rules in October 2018, reminding commanders that they could decide, on their own authority, to “engage temporarily” in military control in circumstances “where prior authorization by the President is impossible” or where local authorities “are unable to control the situation.” A new Trump-era Pentagon directive calls it “extreme situations.” In all cases, even where a military commander declares martial law, the directives say that civil rule has to be restored as soon as possible.

“In scenarios where one city or one region is devastated, that’s a pretty straightforward process,” the military planner told me. “But with coronavirus, where the effect is nationwide, we’re in territory we’ve never been in before.”

The piece is as much a history of American emergency planning over the past 70+ years since the start of the atomic age as it is a particular profile of planning in this moment.