Huge Homeland Security Drill Planned
'Dirty Bomb' in Seattle, Disease in Chicago Part of Scenario for May 12 Exercise
By Edward Walsh and John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 5, 2003; Page A09
This is the scenario: At noon in Seattle, a hidden bomb explodes south of the central business district, causing more than 100 casualties. Significant levels of radiation are detected near the site of the explosion and it soon becomes apparent to local officials that this was no ordinary bomb, but a radiological dispersal device, commonly known as a "dirty bomb."
The next day and some 2,000 miles to the east, people complaining of flu-like symptoms begin to trickle into hospitals in the Chicago area. Over the next 24 hours, the number of arriving patients escalates dramatically. Local officials diagnose the cause of the illness and ask the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to confirm their worst fear -- a deadly, biological agent has been released near Chicago.
These fictional events are set to unfold over five days beginning May 12 in what federal officials say will be the largest homeland security exercise in U.S. history. Dubbed TOPOFF 2 (for Top Officials), the exercise will cost an estimated $16 million and involve more than 100 federal, state and local agencies, the American Red Cross and Canadian government agencies and organizations.
Federal officials said TOPOFF 2 is designed to test the response to widely dispersed, almost simultaneous terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction, and to glean from the experience lessons that can be applied in case of the real thing.
"We want to be able to test strategies, responses and protocols," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in an interview. "When you simulate people and technologies interacting, you learn a lot about your response capabilities."
Another Homeland Security official said, "The whole idea is to stimulate lots of what we call 'free play,' where events are not scripted. We want to play out actions and see what goes on."
This will be the second homeland security exercise staged by the government. The first occurred in 2000 in Denver and involved a mock germ warfare attack. News accounts at the time described a chaotic response to the fictional event, with government agencies jostling for control while critical decisions were delayed amid 100-person telephone conference calls.
About 8,500 people will take part in this exercise, including officials in the District, Maryland and Virginia, who will activate their emergency operations centers on the day of the fictional radioactive explosion in Seattle. Officials said this would be the normal response in the nation's capital to an attack with weapons of mass destruction anywhere in the country.
The participants will range from governors, mayors, county executives and other elected officials to police officers, firefighters, medical personnel and other "first responders" to a terrorist attack. They will also include hundreds of "evaluators" who will watch the unfolding events and report their findings on the response for later study.
But Homeland Security officials said the lessons learned from the exercise will not be made public to prevent potential adversaries from benefiting from the information.
In announcing plans for the exercise, federal officials stressed that no real weapons will be used to simulate the attacks. They also said that the scenario they have developed, while "credible," was not based on any U.S. intelligence findings on the plans of terrorist organizations.
Planning for TOPOFF 2 began in June 2001. The elaborate scenario for the exercise was developed by government agencies with the help of outside experts in a number of fields, including bioterrorism and nuclear physics.
Under the scenario, the Seattle and Chicago attacks are the work of two cells of GLODO, a fictional foreign terrorist organization that is said to have "a history of ruthlessness." Six days before the May 12 bomb explosion in Seattle, "credible threats" against the United States picked up by intelligence agencies cause the Department of Homeland Security to raise the national threat level from yellow (elevated) to orange (high).
Meanwhile, over the weekend of May 10 and 11, GLODO agents in Illinois release a biological agent that takes three to six days before causing symptoms of illness in those who are infected.
On May 12, a Monday, the bomb explodes in Seattle and federal officials raise the threat level to red (severe), triggering the opening of the emergency operations centers in the District, Maryland and Virginia. Throughout the exercise, there will be a live, eight-hour-a-day broadcast about the events on a fictional television network, which state and local officials around the country can follow and use to plan how they would respond locally to such developments elsewhere.
Canada will participate in the exercise as part of the Smart Border Agreement, which was signed in December 2001. The Canadian role will include the response of national agencies, the province of British Columbia and the city of Vancouver to the spread of a flu-like illness carried by travelers on Air Canada flights from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
Ridge said government officials are most concerned about the use of a biological agent that can spread from person to person, as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) does. He said that possibility, which will be simulated in the Chicago attack, is "the true nightmare scenario."
The fictional scenario was devised by government officials and it includes a swift and effective response by law enforcement agencies. Within 36 hours of the first attack, the terrorists' "safe house" in Washington state and the Illinois sites where the biological agent was produced are identified, according to the scenario.