The Road to Heart Mountain
A slightly different version of this article was printed in the Loompanics Unlimited winter (September) 1998 catalog supplement. This "open-mindedly skeptical" view of FEMA was actually written in January of that year. It owes a lot to the work of other authors and researchers, whose articles are referenced at the end. Except for the portions pertaining to the internment at Heart Mountain, it isn't primarily the product of my own original research, but is a compilation of, and meditation upon, research done by others.
In the prison camp, they nearly went mad with wind and boredom. And with cold. Many had never seen snow, let alone this 30-below, wind-driven horror. The winds blew white drifts through the cracks in the floors. The huddled families could never get warm, could never get used to the screaming, maddening wind…
We approach the site of the old camp on a January day. The roads are open -- barely. They often close them around here simply because of the wind; wind-carved humps and sheets of snow send vehicles careening into ditches. There's nothing to hit in this high desert. But you can roll forever.
The mountain dominates the valley. I never thought a mountain could be ugly until I saw this one. It looks like the face of huge, sleeping a man. His nose swells and hooks. He has no lips. Out of his chin a rocky excrescence protrudes like a wart. No, not exactly a man. More like a deformed god.
In the summertime, in the camp, the wind blew brown drifts through the cracks in the floors and between the dry, uninsulated boards of the walls. Every day during harvest, prisoners would be driven outside the barbed wire enclosure to work in the fields.
But the young men -- more than 600 -- left the camp to fight in the war. They became soldiers for the government that had imprisoned them.
In 1942, Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, sending more than 110,000 people to relocation camps. Most of the internees were U.S. citizens. Eleven thousand went to Heart Mountain, north of Cody, Wyoming -- imprisoned without trial for the crime of Japanese descent.
To this day, there are Americans who defend this internal deportation, saying, "It was for their own good," or, "They weren't like us. They were loyal to their own kind." The camps, they say, were necessary.
The question is—Is it about to happen again? Does the U.S. government have plans to round up citizens and lock them into bitter internment "for the duration" of some future emergency?
The Internet is rife with rumors. The most persistent rumor says political dissidents will be targeted, this time.
Skeptics dismiss the rumors as so much conspiracy-mongering. And even some conspiracy buffs warn against pursuing the tales. When I mentioned I was looking into that question, one said to me, "That way lies madness. If you find out there are camps, no one will believe you. And if there are camps, and you come too close…"
Some rumors do seem preposterous. In the way of urban legends, people who've "seen the camps being built with their very own eyes" are usually nameless friends of friends, their stories unverifiable. Other reports might have perfectly innocent explanations. An acquaintance shouted breathlessly down the phone that he'd seen, "Barbed wire! High walls! And guard towers!" being built at Ft. Lewis in Washington state.
Well, yes, I thought. You would see those things being built on a military base, wouldn't you? Later, photos circulated on the Internet of such installations. But no one could document their purpose. Experienced military men within the freedom movement countered that they appeared to be training facilities for operating POW camps -- a perfectly legitimate operation. Eerie as such things are, it takes a lot more than this to prove that concentration camps are being built to house us.
But the reports won't go away. Even where they're shaky on specifics, they express an intuitive truth about the federal government's view of ordinary Americans. There's nothing new in that federal opinion.
Shortly after the original internment camps closed, J. Edgar Hoover conceived a plan called "Security Portfolio," which would have enabled the president to declare a national emergency, suspend the Constitution, and put thousands of people into prison with no trial and no habeas corpus rights.
It was the beginning of the Cold War against Americans.
Two years later, Congress approved the Security Act of 1950, which also contained an emergency detention plan. Reportedly, Hoover was furious at the plan's "mildness," and continued with more draconian plans of his own.
The Security Act remained in force for more than 20 years. G. Gordon Liddy reminisces openly about the days when his job in the FBI included keeping tabs on a list of potential internees. Once every three months, he checked the whereabouts of the political agitators on his list so the government could round them up reliably.
During the unrest of the 1960s the federal government again made contingency plans for possible mass roundups of "militants."
Now, unrest stirs anew, and we see this -- a memo from C. Dean Rhody, Director of Resource Management for the Department of the Army, July 27 1994:
Enclosed for your review and comment is the draft Army regulation on civilian inmate labor utilization and establishment of prison camps on Army installations. The draft regulation is the compilation of all policy message (sic), Civilian Inmate Labor Oversight Committee policy decisions, and lessons learned to date. The new regulation will provide the following:
a. Policy for civilian inmate utilization on installations
b. Procedures for preparing requests to establish civilian inmate labor programs on installations
c. Procedures for preparing requests to establish civilian prison camps on installations.
The draft plan once attached to the memo has not surfaced. But Congressman Henry Gonzalez of Texas admitted in an interview, "The truth is, yes, you do have these standby provisions…whereby you could, in the name of stopping terrorism…invoke the military and arrest Americans and put them in detention camps."
An agency of control
Whatever agency builds the camps, the rumor mill knows who will operate them. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA, they say, will become dictator of America in a future "emergency." It will hold absolute power over the infrastructure, productive capacity, and citizenry of the country.
Whether FEMA will ever do this is an open question. That it has been granted the (unconstitutional) authority to do so is fact.
FEMA was established entirely by presidential orders. Congress offered no advice, consent -- or objection. The agency became official when Jimmy Carter signed Executive Order 12148 in 1979, but the concept behind FEMA flowed from the minds of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Kennedy signed a series of orders granting the federal government the power to seize a variety of private or local functions in event of emergency.
Nixon consolidated and enlarged these powers in 1969 with EO 11490.
Gerald Ford later signed EO 11921 which, in the words of Dr. Henry Kliemann, political scientist at Boston University, "…was understood by FEMA to mean that one day they would be in charge of the country. As these bureaucrats saw it, FEMA's real mission was to wait, prepare, and then take over when some 'situation' seemed serious enough to turn the United States into a police state."
Once Carter made FEMA official, Ronald Reagan -- far from the lovable bumbler or noble freedom lover he's pictured in retrospect -- gave the agency a distinctly paranoid, military slant by appointing as its head General Louis Guiffrida.
Among other qualifications, Guiffrida had written a paper advocating the declaration of martial law in response to black militancy. His plan could have sent millions of blacks to relocation camps. He also wrote:
Martial rule comes into existence upon a determination (not a declaration) by the senior military commander that civil government must be replaced because it is no longer functioning, anyway.
Nevertheless, in the public and media mind, FEMA is simply a helpful -- though sometimes slow-moving -- service organization. It shows up after earthquakes and floods to rescue stranded puppies. It parcels out money so communities can rebuild.
Maybe. But FEMA isn't, and never has been, an agency to aid average Americans.
FEMA's chief -- but largely secret -- mission has always been "Continuity of Government." Its job is to make sure that federal control continues at all costs.
This has led to construction of dozens of secret underground bunkers, capable of sustaining life for the select few allowed into them. It has led to FEMA budgets in which millions are allocated to "disaster relief" while billions go to unspecified "other purposes." And that's not to mention the unknown sums in black budget appropriations the agency receives via the Defense Department.
For many years, FEMA denied the existence of its primary bunker, Mt. Weather in West Virginia. At 1975 hearings, retired Air Force General Leslie W. Bray, director of FEMA's predecessor, the Federal Preparedness Agency, stonewalled a U.S. Senate subcommittee, insisting, "I am not at liberty to describe precisely what is the role and the mission and the capability that we have at Mount Weather, or at any other precise location."
However, it's an open secret that an entire parallel -- unelected -- government is headquartered at Mt. Weather, ready to take over the country in an emergency.
Disturbing as this may be to some, most Americans would probably take comfort in the belief that some form of government would continue in an emergency.
But what is an "emergency"? According to Carter's order, it is "…any accidental, natural, man-caused, or wartime emergency or threat thereof, which causes or may cause substantial injury or harm to the population or substantial damage to or loss of property."
In other words, an emergency is anything the president or the director of FEMA declares it to be. Because to the professionally paranoid, anything -- even civil disagreement -- can be a threat.
It's worth noting that, in the same 1975 hearings at which the Senate failed to learn the purpose of Mt. Weather, Senators did learn that:
….the facility held dossiers on at least 100,000 Americans. [Senator] John Tunney later alleged that the Mount Weather computers can obtain millions of pieces of additional information on the personal lives of American citizens simply by tapping the data stored at any of the other ninety-six Federal Relocation Centers.
The subcommittee concluded that Mount Weather's databases "operate with few, if any, safeguards or guidelines."
And that was in the days when computer power was measured in kilobytes, not gigabytes and terabytes. Bill Clinton has "modernized" FEMA and elevated it to a cabinet-level department. Under his crony-appointee James Lee Witt, FEMA has increasingly insinuated itself into the doings of local governments, pushing them to pass zoning ordinances and even conducting a SWAT-style raid on a county office when it suspected misuse of flood control funds.
These are odd roles for a federal emergency management agency.
But what about those camps?
Clinton also signed Executive Order 12919, which authorizes any FEMA department head "…to employ persons of outstanding experience and ability without compensation" in event of emergency. There is, of course, a simple one-word description of such laborers: slaves.
And where might these FEMA-commanded slaves work and live? According to Roland C. Eyears:
[FEMA] operates widely dispersed, newly constructed detention facilities which might be mistaken for hospitals. How curious that such activity has become common at closed military bases. Many include rail spurs in a time when there are no legitimate commodities with the bulk and weight which would justify rail hauling.
Unfortunately, Eyears offers no proof of his assertion. But the rumors don't die. There is this, from the Internet:
At a dinner following a gun show…[in 1994], a friend introduced me to a trucker….The trucker said that for several years, he'd been making deliveries to a military base in Montana. According to him, the base was one of those that was supposed to have just been closed. Yet, he said, he'd made several deliveries there in just the previous few months. The only difference, he said, was that prior to the "closing" he'd drive on to the base, be directed to a warehouse a few miles away, and would unload at a loading dock. Now, he said, he was being met at the gate and not allowed to drive onto the base.
Yes, it's another "friend of a friend" story. However, it's no rumor that Congress has on several occasions proposed to convert closed military bases into prison camps. C. Dean Rhody's memo lends credence to the idea that camps are under construction now. Have FEMA and the Army simply done it using some of those black-budget billions?
FEMA bureaucrats may be tempted by paranoia and the prospect of unlimited power. The standing army, which the founders of the country so passionately warned us against, is casting about for something to do. By profession, both groups have a mindset that envisions danger everywhere.
Propaganda keeps Americans in fear of "terrorism." Anyone who speaks out against government abuse is branded an "extremist," a "hate-monger," even a potential terrorist. The demonization is eerily evocative of what the Jews and Japanese-Americans endured long ago. It could happen.
But the skeptic still asks, "Where's the proof?"
The road to Heart Mountain
In December 1997, a memo landed on my desk. It listed two dozen "verified" sites where FEMA labor camps were being built -- right now. One was "Hart Mountain (sic), renovated WWII Japanese-American special internment detention facility."
We were in the area. So there we were, my significant other and I, bumping over ice-lumped roads, following a local's instructions to "look for the old smokestack on the bluff."
We leave Highway Alt. 14 and plow uphill on County Road 19. We rise onto the bluff where the old camp was located. And the wind continues to howl across -- nothing. A fallow beet field. A realm of snow.
To the right, far away, sit four crumbling buildings, all that remains of a city-sized prison. Other structures were sold and hauled away years ago. To the left, a small forest of plaques lies under heaps of white.
We get out and brush snow off the plaques. We find years of testimony to guilt and regret. We find honor for the young men who fought for the country that despised them. We find words of useless repentance etched in stone after stone.
Later, we plod through six inches of untracked snow, across the sagebrush plain, to the derelict buildings, part of an old administration complex. They're rotting, but curiously untouched by vandals. Doors still swing easily and windows hold fragments of glass. The interior walls, though crumbling, are still institutional green. Next to a disused chimney, a hinged box holds a 50-year-old supply of kindling. And Charles looks up and finds, caught under a light fixture, a scrap of wallpaper as bright in this dry climate as it must have been in 1942. Green leaves and red roses.
But there's nothing here to renovate. And the only new buildings are far away -- prosperous farms profiting from land the internees made fertile. There's certainly no plank-and-barbed-wire concentration camp waiting to receive another group of demonized Americans. No U.N. troops standing guard. No FEMA bureaucrats waiting to implant biochips in incoming prisoners.
There's nothing human at Heart Mountain. The ghosts themselves have blown away.
There is nothing, nothing, nothing…nothing at all.
Yet, as we turn to begin the long, bleak drive back to Montana, I can't help but remember that they housed them all in barns, all those tens of thousands of Americans, as they waited for the camps to be hammered together. They rounded them up and took them to fairgrounds before the camps were ready. All it takes to turn a fairground into a prison is a few cots while they wait for something more permanent. All it took to provide the wartime permanence of Heart Mountain was two months of construction.
And we, of course, have something America didn't have in World War II -- dozens of de-militarized military bases scattered all around the country -- barracks, barbed wire, checkpoints and all. Waiting.
I feel silly having pursued a chimera down the Wyoming winds. But at the same time, I don't feel safe. Or free. The camps may no longer stand on the cold deserts of Wyoming or the shimmering deserts of Arizona. But they're there. In the executive orders. In the plans. In the memos. In the minds of those with a will to control.
It's a will that has swelled through 50 additional years of unchecked power. A will that will burn children and shoot mothers and say the innocents were to blame for their own destruction. A will that engineers the survival of government while treating free people as resources or enemies.
Next time, I think, wind and loss won't be our worst punishments.