Response to blackout exposes homeland security weaknesses

New York City's 911 emergency system failed. Then the computer-aided dispatch system for its fire department and rescue squads crashed. The fire department had to monitor its trucks and personnel manually because the computer tracking system couldn't boot up. During the Blackout of 2003, the scene in New York was calm, yet-from a security perspective-anything but confidence-inspiring.

Anyone who saw the Aug. 14 photos of stranded New Yorkers streaming out of the city can easily imagine a plot to cut the city's power and then blow up the Brooklyn Bridge, killing hundreds or thousands of pedestrians. While federal, state, and local officials heralded their responses to the blackout as proof of how far they've come since Sept. 11, some homeland-security experts say the blackout was yet another warning siren.

"As we're approaching the second anniversary of Sept.11, the past weeks have shown that our efforts to prepare for the next catastrophic attack have in many respects been a miserable failure," declared John Cohen, a homeland-security consultant who is preparing Detroit's post-blackout report. "If we can't handle a major blackout, what's going to happen if and when we do have a catastrophic emergency with a large number of injuries?"

Detroit also lost its 911 system. The Motor City's government phone network collapsed, as did its brand-new Nextel cellphone system, which had been billed as capable of weathering a terrorist attack. When Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge needed to reach Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick the day after the blackout began, a Ridge assistant called Cohen, who runs a Maryland-based consulting firm that counts Detroit as a client. Cohen called the mayor's emergency operations center and left word for Kilpatrick to call Ridge's aide. Cohen was dumbfounded that the department needed him as a go-between. "In the case of Detroit," he lamented, "not a whole lot of useful information came from the department to the city."

State-level homeland-security officials also complain that they were out of the federal loop. On Aug. 14, 40 of them were in Indianapolis for a powwow. The security chiefs first found out about the crisis from colleagues back home, not from the department, even though its No. 2 official for state outreach was attending the gathering.

"None of us received any talking points or information [from the department] as to why and how they deduced it was not terrorism," said Clifford Ong, Indiana's director of homeland security. He heard nothing from the department until a regularly scheduled conference call the following week.

Homeland security directors from the affected states fared better on the communication front. Pennsylvania's Keith Martin first learned about the outage from his emergency crew at home, but then heard from the department three times the day of the blackout. "I do have a direct inside line into the Homeland Security Department," he said. "They can find me anywhere, at any time." In a speech last week to the Heritage Foundation, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Gordon England characterized his department as "the communications hub" during the blackout.

Part of the new department's charge is to determine whether an emergency was caused by terrorism. And the blackout threw a harsh spotlight on a decision-making process that might charitably be described as needing work.

Josh Filler, the department's top liaison to state and local governments, happened to be on the phone with an aide to New York Gov. George E. Pataki when the lights flickered out. Filler rushed to the department's emergency center and had everybody rifle through their Rolodexes and start calling contacts in the electricity industry, local government, and the intelligence agencies. Top officials at the North American Electric Reliability Council received multiple calls. When department leaders gathered enough information to conclude that the outage was probably the result of a system overload, they ruled out terrorism. One insider characterized the process as "rampant ad hocery."

Just five hours into the blackout, President Bush declared, "The one thing I think I can say for certain is that this was not a terrorist act." Four days later, Ridge tempered that assessment, telling governors, "At least to date, there is no indication whatsoever that there was any kind of terrorist involvement at all. Obviously, it is still under investigation."

England further softened the claim on Aug.20, telling the Heritage Foundation, "At this early stage in the investigation, we have found no evidence of terrorism."

When did Indiana's Ong become convinced the blackout wasn't terrorism? "I'm still not there," he said. "Until they can give me an affirmative response [identifying the cause], why would we rule out anything?"

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