It’s been more than four years since Congress directed the
Defense Department to develop and execute a domestic preparedness
program against chemical or biological terrorist incidents.
Federal agencies are soliciting billions of dollars to continue
and increase their role in countering chemical-biological (CB) terrorism,
despite the lack of an identified threat. It has been reported that
the military’s response forces are useless to the city emergency
responders and that the city-training program was just an inflated,
bloated contractor-driven effort to juice the government on the
latest hot-button topic. One report accuses the Pentagon and other
government agencies of playing the executive and legislative offices
against each other to gain more funds.
But what these critics are not considering fairly is that the Defense
Department leadership never sought out this role. Congress directed
the Pentagon to train emergency responders at the city level. Congress
approved the list of cities to be trained, and it directed the development
of response capabilities. The Defense Department responded by teaming
with top-notch consultants and developing a domestic preparedness
program, resulting in tens of thousands of trained emergency responders.
But the Pentagon does not handle public-policy issues well, and
the collection of government agencies coordinating the federal CB
terrorism response made the execution of the effort clumsy and inefficient.
It takes time and focused leadership to refine a public program.
Unfortunately, the Senior Interagency Coordinating Group (SICG),
and now, the National Domestic Preparedness Office (NDPO), have
not provided the leadership or the focus to improve the program.
The Defense Department is a support agency only, not the lead–yet
it gets the biggest rocks thrown in its direction.
The U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command (SBCCOM)
started the domestic preparedness program in the fall of 1996. This
group, which included many of the government agencies involved in
fighting "conventional" terrorism, drove the federal response
program and coordinated how each agency would participate. As with
any committee without a strong chair, the products end up being
compromises and not ideal solutions.
The Pentagon’s role was to be the main source of subject-matter
expertise in chemical and biological warfare. It had to develop
a training program, response assets and a hotline for emergency
responders. The training program had to be ready to go by June 1997,
in Denver, and 120 cities would be trained within three years.
There was no need for agencies to lobby for additional funds as
the program took off. Rather, there was an excess of congressionally-mandated
funds and directions without adequate personnel or materials to
execute the program.
SBCCOM hired Booz-Allen and Hamilton as the lead coordinator for
its training program, and a subcontractor, EAI Inc. SAIC led the
medical training courses, and RPI conducted the exercise portion.
Booz-Allen and IEM Inc., executed the CB hotline tasks, respectively.
Many consultants were former Army chemical specialists.
The consultants teamed up with fire battalion chiefs, senior police
officers and medical experts. They created a training program that
mirrored the National Firefighter Academy’s incident command
approach. They knew that the emergency responders would reject any
purely military-based training. They were guided by the following
Extensive coordination with police, firefighters, hospitals and
other emergency responders within the city and surrounding counties
took time and patience to prepare for the week-long instruction.
The SBCCOM team had to coordinate travel and training for two to
six cities every month over three years. Tempers flared, marriages
were broken and job turnover was heavy. But the job got done, and
the majority of cities’ emergency responders were appreciative.
The Pentagon’s response force took the shape of a CB quick-reaction
force (CBQRF), later renamed the rapid response team (CB-RRT), with
the Army’s Technical Escort Unit (TEU) as its nucleus, with
Army medical, Air Force and Navy unit support. The National Guard
formed 22-person response teams, initially planned as one team per
FEMA region. U.S. Joint Forces Command’s joint task force
on civil support (JTF-CS) includes the Marine Corps CB incident
response force (CBIRF), as well as the CB-RRT. These organizations
have been active at national events, such as the Olympics, political
conventions, the millennium celebration and state-of-the-union addresses.
What has this cost the taxpayer? Not $10 billion in one year, as
some have misread from GAO reports. That number is the total amount
the federal government spent on countering terrorism, which is mostly
focused on the conventional forms of terrorism. About $1.5 billion
in fiscal 2000 was allocated to CB terrorism response, and less
than half of that was spent by the Defense Department.
Transition to Justice
When the Justice Department took over the program, they used all
the subtlety of a bouncer wading into a bar fight. Justice was to
take over SBCCOM’s training of the remaining cities (due to
scheduling conflicts, not all 120 cities had been trained in three
years). SBCCOM was told to drop its CB helpline, which had been
fielding more than 1,300 calls each month. The hotline was replaced
with an e-mail address on the NDPO website. The Pentagon’s
training materials would not be required. Justice had its own training
The NDPO seems to be more of a coordination center, "empowering"
the emergency response community through electronic links to information
sources. Justice may be the lead federal agency to respond to terrorism,
but it does not have on-hand expertise on handling CB warfare agents.
No one is disputing the Justice Department’s lead role in
countering and responding to acts of terrorism. The need to prevent
terrorist incidents and prosecute those responsible for terrorism
under federal laws demands that it play a strong role. A lack of
credentials in CB device assessment and handling and post-incident
response makes the NDPO a knowledge source, not a leader. There
are now two distinct federal programs, one focused on law-enforcement
actions against CB terrorism (Justice Department), and one focused
on responding to CB incidents (FEMA).
On the other hand, the Pentagon’s leadership may be privately
satisfied that it can divest itself of the city training program
and helpline. The program was more of a diversion from its military
mission. The response function continues as a congressionally-mandated
directive to develop National Guard civil support teams (CST). These
teams are another source of criticism, such as the argument that
a 22-person military team could not possibly offer substantive support
to the local responders. Either they will be too late, or they are
too small to make a difference in that critical first hour.
The Army Technical Escort Unit often is called upon to evaluate
discovered devices or CB agent materials. Based on intelligence
estimates, TEU, CBIRF, WMD CSTs or similar assets could collocate
with local responders at high-profile events that may attract terrorists.
This is done routinely for national special events and could be
paralleled with little effort at the state and local levels. The
objective is to bring in the real subject-matter experts to support
city and state leaders before the incident unfolds, and the subject-matter
experts are from the Defense Department, not the FBI or FEMA.
The response to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was not a one-hour
affair, but lasted several months. While a late federal response
to a "no-notice CB terrorist incident" may not immediately
save lives, there is the need to restore government services and
general health and safety as soon as possible. Local forces would
be overwhelmed just dealing with the immediate consequences of an
incident. There is a role for federal assets that arrive hours or
days after a CB terrorist event. They can bring in supplies and
assist in long-term remediation of the incident site.
The constant turnover of emergency responders will demand that
a source of expertise remain available in the cities and states.
The National Guard strongly lobbied for the role of sustainment
training, and the WMD CSTs are one potential solution to that requirement.
Additionally, politicians want to demonstrate that they care about
the health and welfare of their constituents by ensuring a WMD CST
is equipped and ready in their state. It is naïve to assume
that congressional representatives would pull back their demands
for these teams. Does every state and territory need its own CST?
Probably not, but until Congress directs a threat-based assessment,
it is difficult to determine, with any rigor, who should get a team
and who shouldn’t.
Defense Department Functions
The Hart-Rudman National Security Commission, in its report, calls
for a National Homeland Security Agency, which would assume the
roles of FEMA, the Coast Guard and Border Patrol. The commission,
recognizing the failure of the current "rule by committee"
approach to terrorism response, believes this agency should both
coordinate and implement policy for homeland security and critical
infrastructure protection. Close working relations with the Pentagon
and intelligence sharing with the FBI and CIA would be a responsibility
for this agency. This would replace the NDPO in its poorly executed
mission of coordinating federal agencies that don’t want to
cooperate and "empowering" emergency responders as they
develop their city response plans.
Responding to CB incidents requires a start-to-finish support,
from intelligence collection to plans and policy development to
assessments to response. No one federal agency currently has all
these roles, and it is clear that the committee approach doesn’t
work. The United States needs one national agency that coordinates
the entire federal response program for CB terrorism.
The Defense Department will continue to provide the brunt of federal
response capabilities, because it has the subject-matter experts.
It can provide training facilities that permit emergency responders
to train in toxic chemical environments. Their role also should
include technical evaluations of contractors’ equipment. The
CB helpline should be reactivated to serve federal and city emergency
This approach does not buy city emergency responders more equipment
or promise zero casualties at "no-notice" incidents. But
there are lessons that must be learned from history. The U.S. Civil
Defense program once tried to protect every city and town from enemy
ballistic missile attacks, but it couldn’t protect everyone
in every city throughout the nation without massive investments,
unaffordable by any measure.
The federal domestic preparedness program needs improvement if
it is to faithfully execute its responsibilities in a more effective
manner than what is seen now. The current committee-style approach
by the federal government does not permit an adequate response to
terrorism, and it is fortunate that no adversary has seriously tested
the system. By many assessments, this nation may never see a CB
terrorist incident that results in the predicted thousands of casualties.
Whether that incident ever comes, the CB response public program
needs to be improved, to better fit the expectations of Congress
and needs of the American public.