Test showed U.S. unready for terrorists

Classified report faults communications, logistics

December 19, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - A classified Bush administration report has found that the largest counterterrorism exercise conducted by the federal government since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was marred by communications problems, serious shortages of medical supplies and hospital rooms, and confusion over where the residue of a radiological attack would spread, administration officials said yesterday.

The five-day exercise in May in Chicago and Seattle, "Topoff 2," tested the response of federal agencies and local governments to nearly simultaneous terrorist attacks using biological agents and a so-called dirty bomb, a crude radiological device.

Administration officials said they were disturbed by the report's suggestion that a continuing lack of preparedness by federal and local governments would result in unnecessary deaths in the event of a major terrorist attack.

They insisted many problems identified in the $16 million exercise had been corrected in the seven months since then.

A brief, unclassified summary of the report, which is expected to be made public today and was made available to The New York Times in advance, cited "critical" problems in Seattle in trying to determine where plumes of radiological contamination from a simulated dirty bomb in the city would spread. As a result, officials said, rescue teams were uncertain for hours where they could travel without risking radiation poisoning.

The summary showed that in Chicago, the problems were often more basic, and the exercise showed the city and federal officials lacked an "efficient emergency communications infrastructure" to deal with a terrorism attack - in this case, a simulated attack with pneumonic plague, a deadly and highly contagious biological agent.

Emergency communications during the Chicago exercise relied heavily on regular telephone lines and fax machines.

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