Questions Arise over Terror Drill

Topoff: " ... Next week will be the fourth Top Officials exercise - dubbed Topoff. The program costs about $25 million a year and involves the U.S. government's highest officials, such as top people from the Defense and Homeland Security departments. ... "

The Associated Press
October 3, 2007

WASHINGTON: The United States is preparing for its biggest anti-terrorism exercise ever next week, a scenario testing the impact if three fictional "dirty bombs" were to go off and cripple transportation arteries in two major U.S. cities and Guam, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press.

Yet even as this drill begins, details from the previous national exercise held in 2005 have yet to be publicly released - information that is supposed to help officials prepare for the next real attack.

On Wednesday, House lawmakers were expected to demand answers, including why the "after-action" report from 2005 has not been made public. Congress has required the exercise since 2000, but has done little in the way of oversight beyond attending the actual events.

Next week will be the fourth Top Officials exercise - dubbed Topoff. The program costs about $25 million a year and involves the U.S. government's highest officials, such as top people from the Defense and Homeland Security departments.

"The challenge with Topoff is not the exercise itself. It's to move as quickly as possible to remedy what perceives to be the problems that are uncovered," former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in an interview this week.

Ridge, who announced the creation of his own security consulting company Monday, said he was a big fan of the Topoff exercises. But he said "it's not acceptable" that the review from the 2005 exercise has not been released publicly.

The House Homeland Security emergency communications, preparedness and response subcommittee was holding a hearing Wednesday on the terrorism exercise program.

The Topoff this year will build on lessons learned from previous exercises, according to the Homeland Security Department, which runs the program. The agency said the Oct. 15-19 exercise would be "the largest and most comprehensive" to date.

According to an internal department briefing that The AP obtained of the exercise, it will simulate a dirty bomb going off at a Cabras power plant in Guam; another dirty bomb exploding on the Steel Bridge in Portland, Oregon, affecting major transportation systems, and a third dirty bomb exploding at the intersection of two busy U.S. highway routes near Phoenix.

Local hospitals and law enforcement agencies will be involved in the "attacks" by the dirty bombs, the term for conventional explosives that include some radioactive material and thus cause contamination over a limited area but do not create actual nuclear explosions.

"Lessons learned from the exercise will provide valuable insights to guide future planning for securing the nation against terrorist attacks, disasters and other emergencies," according to the department's Web site.

The after action report from Topoff 3, which deals with issues that came up in the 2005 exercise, is supposed to identify areas for improvement. That report is still going through internal reviews.

According to a brief summary of the 2005 exercise - marked For Official Use Only, but obtained by The AP - problems arose when officials realized the government's law for providing assistance does not cover biological incidents.

The exercise involved simulating the effects of a mustard gas attack from an improvised explosive device in Connecticut and the release of the pneumonic plague in New Jersey. This caused certain disaster programs to be unavailable to some residents who would have suffered from the attack, according to the summary.

A 2005 Homeland Security inspector general report suggested the department start tracking the lessons learned from these exercises. And a 2006 White House report on Hurricane Katrina criticized the department for not having a system to address and fix the problems discovered in the Topoff exercises.