Bigger anti-terrorism role urged for experts at APG U.S. Senate panel told local emergency crews unprepared for attacks

March 28, 1996|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The United States is not prepared for terrorists using weapons of mass destruction, a Senate panel was told yesterday, with experts urging training for local emergency response teams and better coordination among government agencies.

A deadly incident like the sarin gas attack last March in the Tokyo subway could occur in this country, as terrorists start learning how to use chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, they said.

"It's not a matter of if, but when, it occurs," said John F. Sopko, a staff member for the permanent subcommittee on investigations, who helped write a report on domestic response to terrorism. The report's recommendations, together with with witness testimony, said the chemical weapons experts at Aberdeen Proving Ground should be given an expanded role to prepare the nation for terrorist attacks and respond to such incidents.

Among the report's findings:

The "first responders" -- local fire, police, rescue and emergency room personnel -- do not have the training or equipment to deal with such an attack.

Forty separate federal agencies have a role in responding to a terrorist threat. There must be better coordination within these agencies and in their communications with state and local governments.

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies, beset by problems of coordination and information sharing, must work harder to provide "the first line of defense against terrorism."

"A rapid solution is necessary," Fire Chief Lamont Ewell of Oakland, Calif., and president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs told the subcommittee, noting that the nation's 120 largest cities are at greatest risk for acts of terrorism. "Local fire and emergency service organizations are going to be the ones who pick up the pieces after terrorist incidents," he said.

G. Clay Hollister, deputy associate director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, conceded that local capabilities to respond to such an attack "are limited." FEMA, he said, is now working with the National Governors' Association and other groups to come up with solutions.

Bill Richardson, a former deputy defense secretary who also served as a technical director at what is now the U.S. Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command at Aberdeen, said another report called for improved local emergency training -- in 1976.

"We are not making use of the extensive assets we've already paid for," said Mr. Richardson, noting that the research arm of Aberdeen's defense command has a 1,147-member staff, including 122 chemists and 116 chemical engineers.

Aberdeen personnel, he said, could be used for a response team similar to one for possible nuclear attacks that was created in 1975 by the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Emergency Search Team.

Such a chemical-biological response team would include chemists and biologists, a portable laboratory and diagnostic center, a mobile emergency support center with databases, hazard prediction modules and secure communications equipment. The estimated start-up costs would be $12 million for the first year, $60 million for three years and $28 million annually on a continuing basis.

The subcommittee's report noted that chemical experts at Aberdeen and biological experts at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick and the Naval Medical Research Institute at Bethesda are designed to protect military units in the field. But they also are called upon to assist federal, state and local civilian authorities responding to a chemical or biological incident. Their budgets cannot support this dual role, the report said, urging Congress to broaden their roles and provide them more money to defend Americans against terrorism.

With adequate funding, these Maryland-based units could help train local and regional emergency management personnel and have the necessary technicians and equipment to respond to a chemical or biological incident, Mr. Richardson said.

Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the senior Democrat on the panel, said the subcommittee expects to use some of the recommendations in legislation. "We must ensure that we have the appropriate response mechanisms," he said.

Separately yesterday, a top CIA official told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the threat of terrorists using such weapons of mass destruction are becoming more likely.

"Extremist groups worldwide are increasingly learning how to manufacture chemical and biological agents, and the potential for additional chemical and biological attacks by such groups continues to grow," said Gordon Oehler, director of the CIA's Nonproliferation Center.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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