- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2004

The United States was attacked, we are at war, and we will be attacked again. These facts are self-evident, as the September 11 commission has reminded us. And while the commission’s suggested structural intelligence reforms have much merit, we must not neglect the other side of defeating terrorism: reducing its impact with thorough response, recovery and consequence management planning.

The Bush administration aggressively opposes terrorist safe havens and is working to deny terrorists access to chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological materials. The Defense Department removed the terrorists’sanctuaryin Afghanistan and is pressuring al Qaeda leaders hiding along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. The Departments of State and Treasury are working to build and sustain international coalitions to better share intelligence, track finances, and prosecute al Qaeda and its affiliates. But despite the government’s best efforts, our collectiveandindividual preparations for the likely event of a catastrophic, mass-casualty terrorist attack have been woefully inadequate.

Domestic preparedness is the front line of the current conflict, yet we fall far short of what is required. The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security issue warnings, disseminate intelligence and ask for help locating key suspects. They also recommend individual preparedness actions, too few of which are heeded. But they mix their message with statements minimizing the very threats we face, offering a false sense of security and normalcy. America’s local governments, businesses and citizens would be better served by open dialogue on the nature of the enemy, exploring individual response options and planning appropriately.

The history of large-scale tragedies, natural or manmade, proves pre-event planning substantially improves post-event response and recovery efforts. Yet, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge says, “America’s job is to enjoy living in this great country and go out and have some fun.” Tragically, the department is encouraging calm and commerce when what is required is collective sacrifice and physical and psychological preparations to deal with the aftermath of the next attack.

The first step is restoring the sense of urgency to fixing known shortfalls. The September 11 commission hearings revealed New York City’s first-responder community (police, paramedics, fire-fighters and emergency medical technicians) remains incapable of effective cross-communication. If the technology exists, buy it. If not, and it cannot be developed, then implement more effective command and control centers. Likewise, after $3 billion dedicated to the effort, only three of our 50 states are certified to receive the Strategic National Stockpile. It has been more than 34 months since September 11. This is inexcusable, and lives will be lost because of it.

On the federal side, senior civilian leaders must issue guidance on legal interpretations of the Posse Commitatus Act, the provisions of which are generally misunderstood by both those lawmakers and leaders who may need to invoke the military’s domestic use and by the citizens whom would be affected. The military could be effective in reducing loss of life, but only if the rules of engagement for their employment are determined well in advance. Good reasons legally constrain certain military activities within our borders. Yet in averting or responding to a truly horrific tragedy, the federal government will be forced to use all available means. This is an uncomfortable topic, pitting states rights against federal powers. But who else has the massive resources needed to quarantine and enforce the law in the case of, for example, a fast-acting biological contaminant spreading across the nation?

The threats are immediate and significant. Attacks will happen again, and we must prepare for them. So train first responders. Integrate and coordinate federal response with the state and local agencies. Compare, contrast and validate different responses to chemical versus biological versus nuclear incidents. Make states capable of receiving the Strategic National Stockpile. Develop redundant communications networks and update emergency procedures to meet the threat. Encourage businesses and industries to develop enterprise-wide contingency plans. Then find the money and the time to plan, and to practice the plan. Update the plan and practice again.

Pre-event response planning is the single most effective action you can take to improve your real-life response when, not if, the next attack comes. The law enforcement and intelligence communities will not be able to protect us at all times, in all places. It is only a matter of time.

J. Michael Barrett is vice president of Red Cell Associates, a terrorism and disaster preparedness consulting firm. He has served as a senior analyst for the war on terrorism for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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