- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

An anti-terrorism exercise earlier this year revealed “humbling” failures in the nation’s ability to respond to large-scale terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security said Friday.

An assessment released by the department listed seven problem areas identified during the exercise. Officials said much has been done since then to address the failures.

“The results were somewhat humbling,” said a private-sector analyst involved in planning the drill. “But that’s what it was for. You want to learn where you need to make improvements. If the results are too good, you haven’t challenged yourself enough.”

The simulation, dubbed TOPOFF 2, for top officials, was staged May 12-16. Twenty-five federal, state and local agencies took part in a mock terrorist attack involving a dirty bomb explosion in Seattle, and a biological attack with pneumonic plague in several locations in the Chicago area.

The report said that the color-coded national threat alert system, which was raised to its highest level — “red” or “severe” — for the first time ever during the exercise, needed “refinement.”

Simply put, many first-responders and other state and local officials just did not know what they were supposed to do when the level was raised.

“There was … uncertainty regarding specific protective actions to be taken by specific agencies under an HSAS [Homeland Security Advisory System] severe threat code red,” the report said. It went on to propose the development of a “comprehensive operational framework that jurisdictions at all levels could use to help define their response plans at each HSAS threat condition.”

Another problem identified by the report was poor communication infrastructures, especially in the public health sector in the Chicago area, where 64 hospitals took part in the exercise.

“The lack of a robust and efficient emergency communications infrastructure was apparent,” said the report, pointing out that with hospitals relying on telephones and faxes for communications, some quickly found their lines overwhelmed.

The report is a short public summary of a classified document. Interviews with a number of participants painted a picture of an often chaotic, sometimes uncontrolled situation.

David Heyman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies — a think tank that has been involved in a number of similar exercises — said that the biggest question raised by the exercise was the issue of preparedness.

“How do we know when we’re prepared?” he asked. “Where’s the bar?”

He said exercises like TOPOFF 2 identified areas where first-responders or other local agencies were less able to cope, but there was no absolute standard against which their readiness could be measured.

“There’s no mechanism in place to tell us when we’re ready,” he said. “It’s a big gap.”

White House spokesman Trent Duffy told UPI that a presidential directive published Wednesday was designed to close that gap.

The directive instructs Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to draw up a “national preparedness goal,” which would “establish measurable readiness priorities and targets.”

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