FEMA Prison Camps
A skeptical look at the claim that FEMA maintains a network of prison camps in readiness.
by Brian Dunning
March 17, 2009
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Today we're going to have a look at more than 800 sites inside the United States, said by some to be prisons operated by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), for the purpose of holding as many as ten million American citizens prisoner, with no criminal charges filed. YouTube carries videos (like this, this, this, and others) of such empty prison compounds, and dozens of websites like libertyforlife.com and abovetopsecret.com showcase photographs and reports by independent investigators. These alleged prisons are hidden everywhere in plain sight: A train yard or shipping terminal mysteriously surrounded by barbed wire; a closed military base with some new construction happening; or even just a vacant site that seems like it could be a good location. A paranoid conspiracy theory, you say? Perhaps. But might there actually be reason to believe that plans for just this scenario really do exist?
When I first heard the FEMA Prison Camp conspiracy story, it seemed ridiculous and paranoid at face value. But when I finally dug in to research it, I started by searching for the origins of the rumors, and found to my surprise that nearly all of the legal foundation and precedent for such a plan does in fact exist. One primary source of fuel for the fire is Garden Plot, the Department of Defense's civil disturbance plan to assist local authorities during times of civil unrest, natural disasters, or other emergencies. Garden Plot has been notably activated after 9/11, and also during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Garden Plot's authority comes from Article I of the United States Constitution, that states in part "Congress shall have power... to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections, and repel Invasions." Taking it one step further, Title 10, sections 331-334 of federal law authorize the President to suppress insurrections, rebellions, and domestic violence by executive order. In recent years, the Insurrection Act and the Posse Comitatus Act, which limited executive powers to deploy the military for purposes of law enforcement, have been amended to broaden the scope of exceptions.
Periodically, the government conducts interagency readiness exercises to prepare for such contingencies. Past examples of such exercises that are frequently cited by Prison Camp conspiracy guys include Rex-82 Proud Saber (where Rex-82 stands for Readiness Exercise, 1982), and Rex-84 Night Train. In these exercises, agencies deal with such problems as major strikes and unlawful assemblies. They may impose martial law, arrest large numbers of people, and handle mass relocation of civilians. Now, obviously, there are times when this is a good thing and we want it to happen. A lot of us were glad that the National Guard came in to help quell the L.A. riots. If a large force of Oklahoma City style militiamen started blowing up a city, I'd want the Army to have pretty extensive powers to put a stop to it. But, unfortunately, everything is a double-edged sword. For the government to have this level of power when it's needed, it means they also have it when they say it's needed, and when you and I might not necessarily be in favor of it. What if Congress suddenly made all guns illegal? They would sure as hell need prison camps to hold ten million rioting citizens. Such powers necessarily do exist.
So there's our legal authority and precedent. If FEMA decides they want 800 prison camps maintained in readiness, they have the legal right to do so, and to use them if ordered. But do they? Do they actually anticipate this need to the point that there really are 800 manned prison camps ready to go? That's another story.
Despite the reasonable plausibility, most of the sources trumpeting FEMA prison camps are clearly delusional, blaming the "Illuminati" for the prison camps, and claiming that they are to support the "new world order". One online list of prison locations describes a Mojave Desert location as a "Fully staffed full gassing/cremating death camp with airstrip, dedicated to the termination red/blue list under martial law," and states that it was recently toured by "high level Illuminati Luciferians". A camp in Alaska is said to have a capacity of two million, despite Alaska's total population of less than 700,000.
And now that President Obama is in office, the charges now fall onto his shoulders. One report says that Obama has already ordered the immediate opening of America's "vast gulag of concentration camps" to handle the "social upheaval" caused by the "economic collapse", and is in the process of incarcerating 775,000 citizens as part of "Project ENDGAME". Fear that this mass arrest and execution of Americans is already in progress is commonly expressed on a lot of these websites. You might remember former U.S. Representative and Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, perhaps best known for her 2006 punching of a Capitol police officer who stopped her when she refused to show proper credentials while bypassing the Capitol's metal detectors. Following Hurricane Katrina, she announced that 5,000 New Orleans prisoners had been executed by the military:
Her son's charge by the Department of Defense was to process 5,000 bodies that had received a single bullet wound to the head, and these were mostly males... The data about these individuals was entered into a Pentagon computer. And then reportedly the bodies were dumped in the swamp in Louisiana... I have verification from insiders, who wish to remain anonymous, at the Red Cross, that this is true. (Because clearly, the Red Cross would be deeply involved in such a plot - BD.)
McKinney was also the driving force behind the 2005 Congressional briefing where she presented testimony and numerous witnesses claiming that the U.S. was behind the 9/11 attacks. In fact, when you search the Internet for FEMA prison camps, you find a lot of the information is deeply interwoven with 9/11 conspiracy theories. The same familiar names appear: Like when Halliburton announced its fourth quarter results for 2005, one of the line items was a $385 million five-year contract to support temporary detention capabilities for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Conspiracy theorists jumped on this and said it was proof that the prisons are being built. I don't know how many prisons you think can be built, staffed, and operated for $77 million a year, but our local megachurch here has spent more than that alone just building a parking garage and a bookstore cafe.
Now of course, we do know that the U.S. government has, in the past, set up prison camps into which law-abiding American citizens have been forcibly relocated, by Presidential order. This happened between 1942 and 1945, when people of Japanese ancestry were rounded up and placed into concentration camps to prevent them from aiding the Japanese during World War II. I recently visited Manzanar, the best preserved of these sites, which is now operated by the National Park Service. You can tour the grounds and they have a great museum, with very frank exhibits that make no excuses for what happened. There is no secrecy or coverup about it. Even today, the U.S. government operates detention facilities around the world, like Guantanamo Bay, which is well known and fully disclosed. Garden Plot and the readiness exercises are all matters of public record.
But there are other sites, such as Diego Garcia Island in the Indian Ocean, for which reasonable evidence exists that it's been used as a detention facility, but that no official admission is made. In fact, it's denied. Whether true or not, the existence of Diego Garcia would not constitute good evidence that concentration camps exist inside the United States; there are significant differences. Whatever might happen on Diego Garcia happens behind closed doors, whereas the claimed concentration camps are right out in broad daylight. And if you're going to illegally rough up a terrorism suspect, a small room overseas is a great place to do it; but a wide-open concentration camp in the public eye, designed for tens of thousands, would be a rather poor choice. So, to a responsible skeptic, the other examples of government behavior that we have constitute pretty poor support for the existence of domestic concentration camps.
At the time Japanese Americans were rounded up and put into Manzanar, it was a reasonable precaution according to the standards of the times. I used to find it hard to believe that people could think so differently only a few decades ago, but in 1999 I bought a house in a neighborhood laid out in the 1930's, and in the original deed was a clause that the buyer may not to sell the house to "a Negro, a Jew, or a Chinaman." Times change. Manzanar would never happen today, and although the government technically has the same powers to do it now as it did then, it's not realistic to be concerned about it recurring.
Our man Benjamin Franklin famously said: "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither, and will lose both." Having to take off your shoes to get on a plane and not being allowed to have a water bottle are infringements that Ben would have deemed unacceptable first steps, but they are also a far cry from millions of civilians being thrown into prison camps. We choose to elect politicians who don't want us to bring water bottles onto planes, because (for better or for worse) that's what's important to our society right now. I don't remember anyone electing a politician who wants to throw millions of Americans into prison camps. To make effective electoral decisions, you need to maintain a healthy skepticism, and not go off the deep end and suppose that every Halliburton contract is a slippery slope leading to Americans being gassed in military concentration camps. If you see barbed wire around a train yard, consider the possibility of other explanations (like the train company doesn't need stuff being stolen) before you conclude that the Illuminati are out to kill you.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "FEMA Prison Camps." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
17 Mar 2009. Web.
24 Jun 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4145>
References & Further Reading
Aaronovitch, D. Voodoo History: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Modern History. New York: Riverhead, 2010.
Arkin, Wiliam M. Encyclopedia of the U.S. Military. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. 574-575.
Barkun, M. A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 73-74.
Falkenrath, R. Problems of Preparedness: U.S. Readiness for a Domestic Terrorist Attack. Boston: International Security, 2001.
Irons, Peter. Justice At War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. 25-47.
Jacobs, J. Socio-legal foundations of civil-military relations. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, Inc, 1986. 51-62.
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