20 March 2000
Source: US national newspaper.

March 20, 2000

U.S. Plans for Mock Terrorist Attacks Get Mixed Response From Top Officials


WASHINGTON -- The U.S. is spending millions of dollars to stage several mock terrorist attacks in late May to test the preparedness of top government officials. Unfortunately, most of them probably won't be paying much attention.

The Justice Department will stage at least three and as many as six rapid-fire mock attacks at a cost of between $3.5 million and $6 million. The exercise is designed to test how the government would respond if a foreign terrorist group released biological agents, chemical weapons and radiation, and hacked into computer networks, in three locales: Denver, Portsmouth, N.H., and outside Washington, D.C.

The idea behind the exercise was to test whether top officials were ready to respond if terrorists struck. But so far, the only top officials who have agreed to participate in the 10-day role-playing exercise are Attorney General Janet Reno and Federal Emergency Management Director James Lee Witt.

Some top officials who would be involved in any real attacks are saying privately that this one, dubbed Topoff for top officials, bears little relation to reality. Letters went out several months ago asking the cabinet officials to participate, but none has given a firm commitment, according to people involved.

Aides Likely to Attend

As the date of the exercise approaches, "we have a few commitments, and we're looking to get more," says Ted Macklin, the director of exercises at the Justice Department Office of State and Local Domestic Preparedness. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala is expected to participate, he added. Other cabinet secretaries are expected to designate aides to attend.

Planners would like to convene a meeting during the exercise of the so-called principals committee, which includes national security adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger, Defense Secretary William Cohen and Army Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But National Security Council aides aren't being too encouraging. "It's unrealistic to expect that someone who has a major department to run will sit in a room for days doing something like this," says a person involved in the planning.

Details of the exercise are being kept quiet, since it is supposed to surprise those involved. But people knowledgeable about the planning say it will be the largest test ever devised of the government's ability to respond to potential terrorist attacks.

Police and rescue units will be deployed. Streets will be blocked off and hundreds of volunteer "victims" will be transported to hospitals. Federal counterterrorism units from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Pentagon will be activated and flown in to enhance the realism.

Critics Cite Potential Problems

Critics in the government say the sheer scale of the exercise is the problem. It's highly unlikely that three or more terrorist attacks would occur at about the same time, they maintain, while the costs of the exercises would stretch existing resources.

All of this is unfolding because of a provision inserted in an appropriations bill two years ago by Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, directing the administration to "practice operations" in the event of a terrorist attack, including "all key personnel" who would take part if such an attack occurred.

Administration officials note that cabinet members and other top officials gathered at the White House in 1998 for a day-long planning session on how to respond to a major terrorist attack.

Mr. Gregg specified that the exercise should be handled by contractors "with a known track record" in staging such events. The Justice Department hired two consulting firms stocked with former government officials and military officers who worked in counterterrorism: Science Applications International Corp. and Research Planning Inc.

It has taken more than a year and the involvement of hundreds of state and local officials to plan the exercise. Few were surprised, however, when planners chose Portsmouth, in Mr. Gregg's home state, as the location for for one of the mock attacks.