June Exercise Planned to Deal with Terrorist Strikes
By Greg McDonald, Senior Writer
The event was only a fictional exercise held in a Washington D.C. hotel conference room in June. But the scenario laid out at the National Governors Association Summit on Domestic Terrorism was eerily similar to the hellish terrorists attacks on Tuesday (9/11) that demolished the twin World Trade Center Towers in New York and split a section of the Pentagon in half.
The exercise was designed to help state leaders and federal officials better coordinate their response to natural or man-made disasters, and it helped identify areas of weakness and strength.
In terms of strength, nearly every state has passed laws in recent years to beef up penalties for terrorist activities. Many, like New York, are considering even more. New York Gov. George Pataki, for example, has just proposed creating six new offenses for terrorist activities. It also includes the death penalty for certain terrorist-related crimes.
In addition, every state has either developed or is in the process of developing comprehensive policies and strategies aimed at dealing with specific acts of terrorism. And most states already have the assets and resources needed to respond to almost any disaster. If a state needs additional help, it can also rely on its neighbors under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact that requires states to share equipment, manpower and other resources in times of disaster.
But one weakness in state programs, a recent Pentagon investigation discovered, is that National Guard units are ill-prepared to respond to terrorist attacks because of defective equipment and poor training.
The Pentagon authorized the creation of 10 anti-terrorist National Guard teams three years ago with a goal of having them ready for duty within two years. But that deadline was missed, according to Pentagon officials. Congress has since authorized the creation of 22 more guard teams, which are now in various stages of training.
Another major weakness, according to NGA officials, is poor coordination with the federal government in prevention efforts.
"I think we've done a really good job in strengthening our response capabilities," says John Thomasian, director of the NGA's Center for Best Practices. "But what's missing is some kind of national strategy for dealing with things that cross state boundaries...I think the (attacks on the trade center and Pentagon) did expose some weakness in intelligence gathering and sharing."
Governors have been pressing the federal government for some time on the issue of prevention through better intelligence sharing. They've called on Congress and the Bush administration to work with them to develop a national strategy to deal with nearly every possibility, whether it be airplane hijackings, bombings, biological, chemical or nuclear attacks. At least three bills are now pending in Congress that call for better intelligence coordination between Washington and the states, but all of them are still tied up in committees.
"The governors feel fairly confident about their abilities to respond...But the sharing of information to prevent acts of terrorism is critical. That's what they are really focusing on now," said NGA Public Affairs Director Chris LaPaille.
In a speech to governors in July, Attorney General John Ashcroft hinted at the need for better coordination on intelligence matters between federal, state and local law enforcement authorities. But he stopped short of suggesting any kind of joint federal-state strategy to address the issue. He did say, however, that President Bush had appointed Vice President Dick Cheney to oversee the development of "a national effort to prepare for and respond to terrorist threats." Ashcroft also noted that Bush had created a new Office of National Preparedness under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been designated as the lead government department in coordinating response efforts with states.