Sunday, February 16, 2003

This story prompted me to remember an idea that's been buzzing in the back of my head for a while:
The Washington Post is moving its data center to Tysons Corner in Virginia.

U.S. News has plans to send reporters and editors to hotels in Frederick, Maryland.

The BBC would evacuate its staff to waiting boats on the Potomac River to avoid land-based escape routes that are likely to be jammed.

The New York Times bureau has geared up with a Geiger counter, dust masks, flashlights, food, water, and other survival equipment.

As the threat of a terrorist attack on Washington occupies the front pages and airwaves, news organizations are trying to figure out how to keep going in a capital city where the air or water might be toxic.
The idea is this: Why don't we decentralize the physical location of various offices and branches of the federal government? In an age of terrorism -- where we fear terrorists with biological agents or dirty nukes -- it doesn't make sense to have the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, DOJ, the Dept of Homeland Security, and everything else, all sitting together within a few blocks' radius in one small city. DC might as well have a gigantic bulls-eye painted over it. And if terrorists do strike with a weapon of mass destruction, they could take out most of the federal government all at once. We'd be left with the odd Cabinet secretary attempting to run the country and rebuild the entire federal government practically all by himself.

Back in December, there was a Washington Post story that quoted a "participant in efforts against al Qaeda whose office is adjacent to Pennsylvania Avenue" as saying this: "They are going to kill the White House," the official said. "I have really begun to ask myself whether I want to continue to get up every day and come to work on this block."

Chilling words. So we have to ask the question, why give them the chance to kill the White House and everything else in DC all at once? Why not move the federal government to different locations? Put the Supreme Court in, heck I don't know, Chicago. The White House in Albuquerque. Congress in Seattle. DOJ in Tulsa. Homeland Security in Providence. Spread the federal government around the country.

Of course, this would take a good bit of time, and it would cost a lot to construct new buildings, move personnel, etc. And it would raise the transaction costs of governing the country (although some of us might view that outcome as a feature, not a bug). But if the risk of terrorists destroying DC is more than infinitesimal -- and the official quoted above viewed the risk as nearer to 100% than to zero -- the costs of decentralizing the federal government are likely less than the cost of seeing the entire federal government decapitated in one fell swoop 5 or 10 years from now.


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