Critics question value of huge homeland security exercise
On Monday at 11:58 a.m., an imaginary radioactive "dirty bomb" will explode near Tully's Coffee in Seattle. Halfway across the country, Chicago-area hospital officials will begin getting an influx of calls from patients who have contracted pneumonic plague. Thus will begin the largest federal emergency-preparedness exercise in U.S. history, calling to duty 8,500 government and emergency workers in an event that will cost $16 million.
"The response will be as realistic as possible," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told reporters at a briefing on May 5. But many experts worry that this made-for-television exercise will be more reality TV than reality. Officials will know many details of the attack ahead of time, and that will undermine the value of the test to gauge America's-or even Seattle's and Chicago's-ability to respond to a terrorist attack. The greatest weapons a terrorist has, after all, are surprise and uncertainty. Ridge called Monday's exercise "a test of our response capacity." Yet, this high-profile and high-price test is a lot like a final exam where students get a sneak peek at the toughest questions.
"It's too big and too scripted," said Frank Hoffman, a homeland-security consultant who was a top aide to the Hart-Rudman Commission on terrorism, which presciently warned of terrorist attacks in February 2001. "There's no tolerance for failure. There's no risks being taken. It can't just be all choreographed in advance. You don't test anything."
For starters, the biggest decision makers-the president, his chief of staff, and his press secretary-have all made their decisions about the "crisis" ahead of time. Some top Bush administration officials even met to decide in advance how they would respond, and their stand-ins will merely be following a prepackaged playbook. "You lose the spontaneity; you lose that aspect of pressure which is so important," said Stephen D. Prior, research director for the National Security Health Policy Center at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. "Decision-making under pressure is a very different beast than decision-making with time on your hands, and without the pressure of everyone needing to know what your decision is in order to take your next action."
That Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels divulged to reporters the precise time and location of the attack was cause for consternation among veterans of the emergency-simulation world. The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington has run several such simulations, including one a year ago that detonated a dirty bomb on the National Mall. "You have to identify the city, but you don't have to tell them anything about the scenario," said Phil Anderson, a senior fellow at CSIS who has no shortage of praise for these exercises as a concept. "When we did our dirty bomb in D.C., they had no knowledge of the scenario. There's a lot of value in being forced to react to something you don't know about."
The main downside to this new exercise, Anderson said, is that it gives leaders at the federal, state, and local levels time to study up and practice in advance. In Chicago, that's exactly what they've done. Some emergency responders have actually clocked their travel time to the exercise site, and they will be waiting close by for their cues. If it took a fire squad seven minutes to arrive during practice, they'll have to wait seven minutes before coming onto the scene.
Decision makers can study the law in advance-such as whether they have the authority to establish a quarantine-Hoffman noted, although he said he is pleased that the drill is heavy on local participation. He added that the scenario also won't be able to replicate the "cascading effects" of the public's reaction to events, such as 1,000 people flooding a local hospital because they've come down with the sniffles and think they're on the brink of death.
Still, says Amanda Dory, an international affairs fellow at CSIS, the exercise is not valueless. Much of the benefit will come from placing people in the environment, even with an artificial element, and allowing them to make connections with people they don't connect with on a regular basis. "I hate to think of these exercises as a meet-and-greet opportunity," but there's some benefit to that, she said.
And Dave McIntyre, deputy director of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, contends that the exercise shouldn't be viewed as a test, but rather a chance to show the homeland ground troops "what it should look like when I get it right." A former Army colonel, McIntyre compared it to the massive "Reforger" war game that NATO conducted for a generation in Europe.
Next week's exercise, dubbed "TOPOFF 2," is the second in the congressionally mandated TOPOFF series. The first was held in 2000 in Denver and in Portsmouth, N.H., which were hit respectively by mock pneumonic plague and mustard gas. But differences between the first exercise and this one abound. In the Colorado-New Hampshire scenario, participants were not told where or what the threat would be. Instead, they were told only that it would happen within a 10-day window. So when the emergency rescue teams in 2000 left the scene after tending to the first victim of this fictitious attack, they took the pneumonic plague home with them and spread it. This time, said Hoffman, "if you tell them this is a drill with pneumonic plague, everyone shows up with the bio suit on, and they don't treat people like they have a cold."
Congress established TOPOFF in 1998 to get top officials-hence the name-to pay attention to homeland-security issues. To that end, the new exercise will be seen as the first big test of the federal redesign that produced the Homeland Security Department. With the experience of the 2000 exercise as a baseline, the expectation is that the grade on this test will be higher than the last one. And the fact that Chicago will encounter the same disease that Denver did makes the situations all the more comparable. Given that TOPOFF 1 was an exercise in chaos, the baseline is pretty low. But in the post-September 11 world, public tolerance for failure will also be quite low.
At their May 5 briefing, Homeland Security officials sought to dampen public expectations of perfection. "None of us expect that the nation's response over the five days of the exercise will be perfect," said Ted Macklin, assistant director for the department's Office for Domestic Preparedness. "Shortcomings will be found, preparedness planning gaps will emerge, but we will learn from what happens, and we will be stronger and better prepared nationally and internationally from the results."
These exercises also have inherent limitations, and the largest is how to translate the experience into a set of "lessons learned." One of the biggest problems with the Denver-Portsmouth experience was that it never produced a public report. Because the findings were deemed too sensitive, the Justice Department never released the report. In the upcoming exercise, firefighters responding to the fictional dirty-bomb attack in Seattle don't have the security clearance to read about the security gaps they-or their Chicago counterparts-uncovered. "You don't want to help the enemy," Anderson said, "but that's a problem when you don't get all the information to all the people who could benefit from it."
Experts also question why pneumonic plague and a dirty bomb were chosen for the exercises, and whether these crises will yield the most-fruitful lessons. Both could be considered relatively "easy" cases, because pneumonic plague is highly treatable with antibiotics and a dirty bomb is unlikely to produce mass casualties.
Good reasons exist for choosing a potential bioterrorism agent, such as plague, which spreads more slowly and can be treated with drugs, said Prior of the Potomac Institute. "Some bioterrorism agents are exceedingly contagious, and everything is out of control. With a slower-burning fuse, you can learn something as you go." Another advantage to choosing plague is that it tests the ability of the federal government to get drug treatments and vaccines to the scene, as well as the ability of local public health officials to disseminate those treatments. "You couldn't exercise this with smallpox, because antibiotics don't work on it," Prior said. Indeed, public health officials came under fire during the 2001 anthrax attacks because confusion abounded over who should get what antibiotic, how much, and through what outlet.
In Denver, the drug-dispersal effort afforded some practical lessons. When the military plane arrived
at the city's airport, health workers quickly learned that the ladders built for commercial airliners weren't long enough to reach the door of a military plane. And when the crew discovered that the pills were packed 900 to a bag, perhaps in the name of efficiency, they had to figure out the fastest way to break the package down into 14-pill single servings, Hoffman said.
For better or worse, some terrorism experts suggest that the most challenging kinds of attacks were left off the exercise list to ensure success and calm public fears. The previous exercises got badly failing grades, said Lawrence O. Gostin, a legal adviser for the exercises who is director of the Center for Law and the Public's Health at Georgetown University. "Maybe this test is to get better grades," he said. "I'm sure public fear is part of the calculation. I'm sure they're trying to test the system and allay public fears about a catastrophic event."
That's not necessarily a bad motive, says CSIS's Dory. "To the extent a dirty bomb is done and handled, it would be tremendously reassuring," she said. "It's useful to reassure participants in the exercise that it's easy, as well as the general public."
At the same time, however, Dory said that if the decision had been hers, she would have tested a chemical attack before a radiological bomb. "Chemical is more potentially deadly than a dirty-bomb scenario. A dirty-bomb scenario ... has potential casualties, but it's more to annoy and instill fear than to have destructive effects. Chemical is well beyond annoyance."