A terrorist group has set off a "dirty nuke" south of downtown Seattle. There are more than a hundred reported casualties so far.In Chicago and Vancouver, hospitals are being flooded with patients reporting mysterious, flu-like symptoms. And the national stockpile of pharmaceuticals in Chicago is missing.How will federal authorities and local officials respond? That's what TOPOFF 2, a five-day, $16 million, 8,500-person anti-terror simulation, sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), aims to find out.According to DHS, TOPOFF 2 (short for "Top Officials 2"), is "the most comprehensive terrorism response exercise ever undertaken in the United States." Designed to train Federal, State, and local responders in putting together a coordinated, international response to WMD attacks, TOPOFF 2 involves 19 Federal agencies and the American Red Cross, in cooperation with participants in Washington State, Illinois, Canada, and the Washington DC area.While some experts see a great deal of value in the event -- which begins today, and runs until May 16 -- others aren't so sure, Government Executive reports.
"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 makersthe president, his chief of staff, and his press secretaryhave 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."In any case, let's hope the exercise is an improvement over TOPOFF 1. Reuters says the simulation, conducted three years ago, was plagued by communications and coordination problems between federal, state and local officials grappling with simulated disasters that could have killed hundreds.In TOPOFF 1, Government Executive notes, Denver and Portsmouth, N.H. were hit by mock pneumonic plague and mustard gas attacks, respectively.
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."Similarly, "Silent Vector," a recent exercise run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies gave only the broadest hints in advance of what might go down during the simulation. Here's my Wired News story on that event.THERE'S MORE: The Seattle Times and Seattle P-I both have nice reports from the drill, including some great pictures.AND MORE: Wednesday's Chicago Tribune has a report on the city's feaux bio-strike.