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Terrorism Exercise
With Susan Neely
Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs
Department of Homeland Security

Friday, May 16, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

Over the past week the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Department of State have undertaken a full-scale exercise to test the readiness of local, state and federal authorities in the event of a terrorist attack. The $16 million simulation involves a mock radioactive "dirty bomb" detonation in a Seattle industrial lot with a simultaneous biological attack in Chicago.

Susan Neely, assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was online to discuss the test, what they have learned and the effectiveness of such simulations.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Susan Neely: Good Afternoon. Before beginning the online chat, a couple comments from the Department of Homeland Security's perspective.

First, while it's too early for us to talk specifically about where the strengths and weaknesses were, it is not too early to say that we believe the exercise was useful.

And, second, along those lines, simply conducting the exercise has to count as a success. TOPOFF 2 was the largest homeland security exercise in the history of the U.S. It involved 8,500 people; 25 federal agencies; two states and two major cities -- Seattle and Chicago as well as Canada.

Somewhere, USA: Hello: I was wondering if the Department of Homeland Security has been doing other exercises before this TOPOFF exercise or not. It would seem this sort of thing would be important enough to do on a more routine basis. What other types of exercises does DHS have planned? How can I find out more about the DHS exercise program?

Susan Neely: Many states and municipalities as well as specific federal agencies including those in the Department hold their own training exercises. What makes TOPOFF 1 (staged in 2000) and TOPOFF 2 (conducted this week) unique is the scope of the exercise. These are the largest exercises that have ever been held in the United States. We already held the first debriefing on lessons learned this morning, and other analysis will follow that will be incorporated into our real life planning and preparations.

Please check out www.DHS.gov for more on TOPOFF 2 and our other programs.

Arlington, Va.: Who does exercises for DHS? There is nothing on the DHS website which says there is an exercise component, other than a reference to the ODP?

Susan Neely: In the case of TOPOFF, the Office of Domestic Preparedness -- an agency within DHS -- was in charge of preparing and managing the exercise.

New York, N.Y.: Who portrays the victims, news crew, etc.? Are these paid actors? Thanks.

Susan Neely: The victims were all volunteers who participated in some basic training in order to play their role. The "virtual" news crews involved former reporters who were retained to simulate real world media.

Somerville, Mass.: USA Today had a story today where they quoted a bunch of experts that basically said the threat of chemical or dirty bombs were dramatically overblown. The leading experts doing the study on the possible effects were stunned and ashamed when they saw the Homeland Defense Web page that suggested a dirty bomb could contaminate an area 1/4th the size of Texas. Neither the experts involved or any other suggested that a dirty bomb had any real likelihood of contaminating more than a few city blocks, and in all likelihood ALL the deaths involved would be from the initial explosion, and not radiation. The same is true of the other types of scary weapons. So WHY is the Homeland Defense Department scaring people with extremely unlikely threats while largely ignoring real threats? Could it be politics, I think that is the only rational answer.

Susan Neely: Have you visited the www.Ready.gov site yourself? If you do, you'll find that the information on basic types of terrorist attacks, including a radiological dispersion device or dirty bomb, is straightforward. The site is designed to inform, not inflame! No where do we indicate that an RDD would contaminate an area a quarter of the size of Texas. There is a map of Texas on the site, and those quoted in the story may be misrepresenting what that map is intended to show.

Independence, Mo.: Good afternoon,

Ms. Neely I'm interested to know in your honest opinion, did we get $16 million worth of good out of these exercises? I am one who views the whole Department of Homeland Security in a pretty skeptical light. What I see it as is a larger than anything we've ever seen, bureaucratic monster that so far has told us to buy Duct Tape and plastic and eroded many individual rights and liberties. Some perhaps with good cause and many without. In other words, I'm a real tough sale on this kind of stuff, but I'm finding I am far from alone.

Susan Neely: The Department of Homeland Security has three main missions: 1) disrupt or prevent terrorist attacks. 2) increase the country's protections to make it harder for terrorists to attack us. And, 3) to increase our readiness to respond to an attack involving weapons of mass destruction should it occur. TOPOFF 2 was directed at the latter part of our mission. As we know from September 11, the ability of first responders and government authorities at all levels to respond effectively will save lives and assist the community and country to recover as rapidly as possible. Training exercises are the best way to identify the gaps in our preparedness capabilities before something happens. Given that the lessons learned from TOPOFF 2 will be applied to improving the preparedness of the entire country, it is a small price to pay.

Arizona: What sort of timetable were you working with? Was this a 24 hour test or did you break at night and then return in the morning?

Susan Neely: The exercise lasted for 4 days. While the participants may have gone to bed at night after a 15+ hour day, the scenario allowed for developments throughout the night. So when we returned in the morning, there was new information that had to be addressed.

Arlington, Va.: Since most of the exercise was prepared in advance, was DHS more prepared than it would have been in a real terrorist incident?

Susan Neely: We certainly were aware of the basic outline of the scenario in advance. However, there were a variety of "curve balls," known only to the scenario planners, that were thrown our way throughout the exercise. Also, it's important to keep in mind that a big part of what we're testing is our coordination, decision-making and communication capabilities and in spite of some knowledge of the scenario, these were well tested during the 4 day exercise.

Alexandria, Va.: How has this exercise evolved from the first, TOPOFF 1, in Denver and New Hampshire?

Susan Neely: We took the lessons of TOPOFF 1 such as deficiencies in our public health infrastructure and did something about them. Then we tested the effectiveness of our these actions in TOPOFF 2. For instance, during TOPOFF 1, there were coordination difficulties among federal agencies. Since 2000, we now have consolidated many of those agencies in one Department of Homeland Security which did seem to facilitate and focus coordination at the federal level in the recent exercise.

Somewhere, USA: How much can we learn from a highly scheduled drill? If hospitals know that they are going to have to deal with a mock bio-weapons attack, is the response really that accurate?

Susan Neely: TOPOFF allowed us to test our systems -- systems that we believe will be able to withstand the pressure of a major attack. Even though we had advance notice of the basic outlines of the test, the simulation allowed us to judge the effectiveness of those systems and determine how to make them better. This means when and if a real attack occurs, we'll be that much stronger and faster in our response.

Washington: You mentioned above that it was too early to talk about where the strengths and weaknesses are. Why would it ever be appropriate to talk about the strengths and weaknesses publicly? Wouldn't that provide potential terrorists with helpful information in planning their attacks?

Susan Neely: Good point. When the final report is compiled there will be portions that are not made public for the reason you suggest.

Folsom, Calif.: Do you think Department of Homeland Security could survive the scrutiny of another 9-11, or similar incident?

Susan Neely: Exercises like TOPOFF 2 are designed to ensure that we'll be better prepared if and when another attack occurs. Having worked in Homeland Security since the immediate weeks after September 11, I can assure you that the country's protections are stronger today than they were then. And, we continue to make progress to increase our security.

Austin, Tex.: Bravo for actually doing something proactive in our government! What other things should we be expecting from the Department of Homeland Security in the next few months? How do we know the Department is successful?

Susan Neely: Look for progress in a number of areas. First, border security. We have initiated a number of technology-based programs to stop high risk people or cargo, without impeding the flow of legitimate commerce or tourism.

Across the federal government, we are doing more to share intelligence and we intend to do more of the same with governments at the state and local level. More information will help us prevent terrorists from attacking.

Harnessing the power of our scientific and technological innovations is another focus of the Department. We are initiating programs to foster the rapid development of the next generation of security tools.

These areas of emphasis, along with our preparedness efforts, are improving our security every day.

Susan Neely: Thanks for your interest in this important topic. Please check out our website, www.dhs.gov, for regular updates.

© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company