The Trouble with Terror Drills

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Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images

A terrorism drill in New Jersey.

Correction Appended: October 12, 2007

Like all sequels, TOPOFF 4, the government's upcoming blockbuster counterterrorism exercise, running all this week, will be bigger, scarier and more expensive than the one before. Terrorists will smuggle radioactive material into the United States and then launch three coordinated dirty-bomb attacks in Portland, Phoenix and Guam. More than 15,000 people will participate, from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to local mayors, police officers and nurses. Professional make-up artists will create oozing "wounds" for volunteer victims, and equipment will be flown in from across the country to detect and contain the "contamination."

Theoretically, it's a great idea, albeit an expensive one ($25 million including all of the pre-exercise planning and post-exercise analysis that takes place over a two-year period). The most important thing you can do before a disaster is establish relationships among the people who will matter most. As we learned after Hurricane Katrina, the only thing more destructive than storm surges are distrustful, territorial and paranoid bureaucrats. "The last thing you want to see at the scene of a disaster are people exchanging business cards," one emergency preparedness expert once told me. And this particular simulation is unique in that, unlike the hundreds of drills that happen all year round, it involves senior officials (hence the name, TOPOFF, which is short for "Top Officials.") Elected politicians from the city, state and federal level will have to talk to one another and make hard decisions with limited information.

But as we also learned from Katrina, which was preceded a year before by a comprehensive simulation dubbed Hurricane Pam, drills don't always translate into progress. If they're going to work, they have to be realistic — and therein lies the problem with TOPOFF. Guess who won't be invited to it? You and me, or many other average folks, for that matter. Sorry, the public and the media have never been allowed to fully participate in the nation's most elaborate counterterrorism drills. Which is sort of like holding a band practice without the drums, the bass or the sound system.

Granted, you can potentially come as a volunteer "victim," if you don't have a criminal record, and I can cover the press conferences at which officials will congratulate themselves on lessons learned. But while everyone else plays him- or herself in the simulation, the media and the public are only invited as props. That's a shame since — especially in the case of a dirty bomb — there are no more important players in a terrorism incident. "We need to train with the media so the media becomes part of the team. You gotta build trust and relationships with the local media," says one veteran emergency manager who has been through a previous TOPOFF exercise. "But everyone is afraid of looking stupid. No one wants to fail."

Terrorism is by definition psychological warfare. So it is essential to trust the public and the media to be part of the solution. On some level, homeland security officials know this.

In fact, one of the five goals of TOPOFF 4 is to "practice the strategic coordination of media relations" in a WMD attack. After all, if regular people understand that a dirty bomb is generally not dangerous beyond the immediate vicinity of the explosion, they might keep going to work and school and not overreact. If regular people are included in the government's high-profile training simulations, then they might trust the official warnings about where to go and what to do in the event of an actual attack.

Trust, however, cuts both ways, and most security officials don't trust you very much. And they trust me even less. "Media are not allowed to participate in the actual exercise," explained Laura Keehner, spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security. "It is our own training. It's for internal use only, for official use only. You can imagine, for security reasons, if you understood exactly every detail of how the intelligence community works and the details of our operations on a very granular basis during an incident of national significance, those who wish to do us harm could use that information against us."

But reporters and the public do not need to get granular. They don't need to see any classified information to play their natural roles in a simulation like this. Reporters could act like reporters — which means they only get what officials give them. In fact, the TOPOFF includes reporters already, but they are government employees who only pretend they work for the media. They go to "press conferences" and ask officials for comment, and the whole show is even televised — on what is called VNN (a Virtual News Network). Why can't real reporters play that role? And while we're at it, why can't regular residents from Portland volunteer to walk down the street during the simulation — and then do whatever feels natural as the event unfolds? No live ammunition is allowed anywhere near the sites, and the situation is extremely controlled. Wouldn't the inclusion of actual civilians also teach officials some ground truths about the public (like, for example, how compliant most people become in a disaster — and how rare panic actually is)?

"We have not yet made that mental leap," says Jim Kish, who oversees TOPOFF planning as the director of the National Integration Center, when asked about the idea of using real reporters. "That's not to say we won't consider it. But doing it this way gives us a little bit more control. We're trying to create a learning environment."

TOPOFF exercises happen every two years, ever since 1998 when Congress, concerned about preparing for something like the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack, mandated that the government hold them. So far, TOPOFFs have included a plague attack in Denver, a chemical weapons attack in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, another plague in Chicago, a dirty bomb in Seattle (accompanied by a cyber attack), a simultaneous mustard-gas release and bomb in New London, Connecticut, and yet another plague attack in New Jersey. But aside from the miscommunication and tribalism among local, state and federal officials before, during and after the events, none of them have really been all that realistic. Says Lee Clarke, a disaster expert who observed some of the 2005 TOPOFF exercise at Rutgers University: "What we saw was just theater. It was just for show. If people really think this is preparing them for a big event, it's a false sense of security."

Here is what a truly realistic training would look like, Clarke says: Not only would the media be invited, but the main players would not know exactly what was going to happen in advance. The element of surprise is what makes terrorism attacks so challenging. So why do we already know that the first dirty bomb will go off in Guam, followed, hours later, by similar attacks in Portland and Phoenix? (This is from a Homeland Security press release, by the way.) And last week, the AP did a story telling us the exact locations of the attacks — at a power plant in Guam, on the Steel Bridge in Portland and at the intersection of Rts. 101 and 202 near Phoenix. Can we get the cell phone number of the terrorists, too? Then maybe we can just call the whole thing off.

To be fair, there are logistical challenges to making the drill a surprise, notes Kish. "It's a balance. With events of this scale, it would be almost impossible to clear the secretaries' and governors' schedules [without prior warning]. There are other exercises that the government does that have much less notice. And I don't think we need to say too much more about that here."

That brings to mind the last component that would render a counterterrorism drill most effective. It would end with a clear-eyed and extensive public report. As it is, the TOPOFF reports are "for official use only," so they are not shared publicly — a level of secrecy that was criticized by some members of Congress last week. "What that does is it shields people from accountability," says Clarke. A good public report would not include truly secret information. It would identify problems and set deadlines for fixing them. And if it were public, there might actually be some pressure to do so.

The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the total cost for the government's TOPOFF4 counterterror exercise was $25 million this year. In fact, that figure includes the cost for all of the pre-exercise planning and post-exercise analysis that takes place over a two-year period.