On May 21 of 2023, CBS news released a story concerning the Senate Sergeant at Arms, retired US Army LtGen Karen Gibson, offering satellite telephones (pdf link) to the 100 members of the United States Senate, as an “enhanced security measure.” The wording in the wider reporting on this occurrence is odd, with at least one outlet opining that the ‘offer’ of the devices “…has been extended to all 100 senators…”.
Odd…So – Not all Senators were offered the phones initially? Why? It’s not like the Houses of Congress have ever been shy with budgetary items for themselves.
While the public reason for issuing Senators with these devices is to “enhance security” in the wake of threats to members of Congress – citing the January 6, 2021 protests and the recent attack on the husband of former house Speaker Nancy Pelosi – the deeper picture is not so straightforward.
“Continuity of Government Operations” (or “COGOPS”) are operations, protective measures and security procedures designed to maintain government functions in the face of some catastrophic event. An artifact of the Cold War, the idea behind ‘continuity of government’ came from the very real threat that a Soviet surprise nuclear strike could destroy the entirety of the United States’ elected leadership in a single, Pearl Harbor-like strike. Numerous measures and programs were instituted (the Congressional bunker at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia among them), and one of the many was a monitoring system that can and does track the locations of all members of Congress.
The problem with a cell phone-based tracking system is that, in the event of major damage being done to the cell tower network in a region (by whatever mechanism), your personal cell phone will not be able to connect to the network. While the cell phone identification numbers of the members of the “National Command Authority” (the President, Vice President and the President’s Cabinet), the Supreme Court and both Houses of Congress all have priority access to the nation’s cellular telephone network in case of a “disruptive event,” that priority access is worthless if there is no network to connect to.
In contrast, a satellite phone network works by connecting a phone directly to the satellite communications network. This network is largely immune – at least in theory – from being significantly damaged by most conceivable “disruptive events.” It also allows a much cleaner and clearer signal when trying to locate a particular person.
The notion that members of Congress require satellite phones for their personal and family security is, to be blunt, laughable to the point of being offensive.
There are very few things could potentially impact the cell grid to the point of requiring satellite phones as a substitute emergency communications device. We’ll briefly look at a few of those possibilities below.
The preeminent threat of this type, as of mid-2023, is a large scale nuclear attack on the United States, an idea that would have been unheard of barely ten years ago. This would obviously have a vast and destructive impact on the nation as a whole, but would particularly impact the telephone system. The primary vectors of a nuclear-induced incident would include electromagnetic pulses (EMP) critically damaging unprotected and unhardened points within the network across a wide area.
But there are other possibilities, many of which may seem to approach a level of hysterical hyperbole.
The notion of a “supervolcano” such as Yellowstone, erupting is a certainly extremely remote as a possibility…but not an impossible one. Similarly, a smaller volcanic eruption at – for example – the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands, has the potential (YouTube link) to generate a tsunami that would make the tsunamis in the Indian Ocean in 2004 (YouTube link) or the 2011 event at Fukushima, Japan (YouTube link) look tiny in comparison.
An even more remote – but still very real – potential avenue of disruption would be a cometary or meteoric impact. The Earth is being continually bombarded by meteors; they can be seen as “shooting stars” in the night sky. The vast majority of these objects never actually reach the Earth’s surface, burning away to vapor long before coming close to the surface…some, like the 1908 Tunguska Event, are another matter entirely.
However, an event such as the Burckle Impact Event – which occurred, in geological and astronomical terms, only yesterday – or a smaller-scale version of the 1994 impact of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 into Jupiter (just on a smaller, Earth-sized scale) would obviously damage the systems of the world to the extent that the survivors may well be reduced to barbarism…but that is not an option that any government – and especially that of the United States – is willing to entertain. And mitigating that fall – no matter how remote a possibility the causative event may be – requires some level of a functioning government, which as always, is rooted in those placed in authority.
It is perfectly acceptable to detest those in government – especially when they deserve it – but it also must be acknowledged that any civilization above the most basic level requires some form of leadership in order to function. What you, the Reader, should be doing, is figuring out your own strategy to get through what may well be coming.
…Because governments rarely update their COGOPS in public.