Amid fears of retribution, the U.S. terror alert status was raised to the orange, or high, level in conjunction with the start of U.S. military action in Iraq. How real is the threat of domestic terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD)? Since 1999, the Congressional Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, also known as the "Gilmore Commission," has assessed federal, state, and local governments' capability to respond to the consequences of a terrorist attack. The panel submitted its findings to the President and Congress each of the past four years and is extended until December 15, 2003.
Gilmore Commission chairman James S. Gilmore III was online Monday, March 24 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss the current state of readiness for responding to WMD and the heightened security status as the U.S. mounts an invasion of Iraq.
Gilmore is president of USA Secure, a private sector forum providing expertise on homeland security issues, and a former Governor of Virginia (1998-2002). He is also partner at the law firm of Kelley Drye and Warren, practicing corporate and technology law and providing advice to clients on homeland security issues in the areas of public relations, information technology and international relations.
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.
washingtonpost.com: Thank you for joining us today, Gov. Gilmore. Let's start by talking about concerns that the war in Iraq will motivate militant elements to stage small-scale attacks in the U.S. The FBI recently said that such events are all but certain. How did the government take this into account, and how should national, state and local governments continue to deal with this threat?
James Gilmore III: We've come a long way since the September 11th attack, but we have a lot farther to go to prepare our homeland defense. Our police, fire, and rescue organizations are aware of the threat and there is more communication than ever before between law enforcement and national security agencies. The frontline of national security will be provided by local law enforcement organizations. As a nation we now need to decide on a national homeland security strategy, determine what needs to be purchased, and get the money into the hands of state and local governments.
Harrisburg, Pa.: As a former governor, you are certainly aware both of the increasing needs of state governments to respond to the increased needs for homeland security. Yet, they are doing so at a time of large budget deficits. If you were still governor, how would you pay for your state's homeland security needs?
James Gilmore III: If I were still Governor, I would drive ahead on a specific homeland security plan for my state. This plan would be created in close coordination with the localities. I would then determine what functions are already being performed and paid for as a state law enforcement function. Special or additional items in the strategy would become the subject of a request of financial support from the federal government. The issue of burden-sharing between the states, locals, and federal government remains on the table.
Luray, Va.: In addition to keeping a watchful eye, reporting suspicious activities, donating blood, and the like, please tell us about some of the hands-on things that we, as citizens, can do to contribute to the war on terrorism.
James Gilmore III: No plan at this time proposes turning the entire body of citizens into policemen or security guards. Keeping a watchful eye is the right approach. Being a more active citizen is a good approach. This means keeping in touch with your elected officials in letting them know how you feel about government policy. Specifically, I believe we should guard against losing any of our fundamental freedoms as a result of the war on terrorism. This means considering our security and freedoms in equal measure. Above all don't allow the enemy to cause us as citizens to overreact and to change the nature of who we are as Americans.
Fairfax, Va.: The government has spent billions on homeland security since 9/11. However, at the end of the day, how are we going to stop some nut packed with explosives from walking into a subway here in D.C. or New York? Israel is armed to the teeth, and that country is certainly not winning the war on terrorism. What exactly can we prepare for, and what is beyond our reach?
James Gilmore III: You are right that total security is not possible, especially in a free society. Nothing has changed about this. We have always lived with a certain amount of risk - witness the Oklahoma City explosion, the assassinations of Lincoln, McKinley, and Kennedy. Our job as Americans is to put together the best possible systems to secure our homeland, not diminishing our freedoms, and then continue to live as a free and confident people.
Blacksburg, Va.: Greetings Governor,
Some of the reports regarding rogue nations or terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction speculate that the radioactive/biohazard yield would be relatively low and only affect a few blocks as fallout. If that is the case, does that then undermine the argument for expanding our medical facilities to deal with it (on a cost-benefit basis, rather than the humanitarian)?
James Gilmore III: Our Commission report can be read at www.rand.org, under the search vehicle type in "Gilmore Commission" and the entire body of work will be displayed. Our work has been extensive in the medical area. We believe that a radioactive/biohazard attack is less likely than a conventional one, but cannot be ruled out. Therefore, we have made extensive recommendations for the improvement of the public health system in the United States. We certainly have to solve the problem of surge capacity in the event of a WMD attack. Of course, not every medical facility can be expanded, nor is it cost effective, but the preparation of medical facilities for such an attack and combining them in a treatment system will help us respond to any attack.
Chicago, Ill.: Governor:
We, who work and live in communities across the country, are very concerned about the administration's lack of concern for first responders -- our firefighters, emergency medical personnel, law enforcement, hazardous material respondents, etc. It's great for the President to say he's behind us and blame Congress for not sending us financial assistance. But what's going on here? We're spending well over $100 billion to go overseas, promised mega-billions to countries who won't even let us use their land ~ but spending less than $1 billion on protecting our own shores and properly supporting the men and women who are expected to save American lives here at home.
Are you helping Congress and the White House bridge with the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the Conference of Mayors to make sure that Americans are being taken care of as well?
James Gilmore III: I believe the Administration is concerned about first responders, and in accordance with our reports understands, that first responders are our first line of defense. We have to develop a comprehensive strategy for each state relying on first responders and make decisions on what must be spent. The central point is to get appropriate funding in to the states and localities, but first we must develop a state-by-state strategy to determine what is appropriate. Meanwhile, a part of our homeland defense does include attacking terrorist organizations overseas to extend our our defensive perimeter. Our Commission is an advisory panel to the Congress and the President and has not been designated as a bridge to state government organizations. We have, however, provided state organizations with a forum through our Commission.
Boston, Mass.: Governor: I believe your report on terrorism said that we should expect terrorists to use somewhat more conventional methods (bombs on bridges and tunnels, shootings, etc.) than the more exotic WMDs like (bio, chem, nuclear). In a sense, 9/11 involved a conventional method (highjacking and crashing a plane) to achieve as big of an impact as nonconventional methods. What should now be our focus?
James Gilmore III: Our Commission continues to believe that a conventional attack is more likely than weapons of mass destruction (WMD). We cannot rule out a WMD attack, but we believe that homeland security is best served by an all hazards approach that will prepare the nation for conventional, WMD, or even natural catastrophe. We have come a long way to protect the nation from stealth attack since September 11th. Our focus now should be on developing a national strategy in detail engaging the states and localities in homeland security and protecting our civil freedoms in the process.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: So what's the point of having another commission and another report? Congress almost never reads them, and when they do, they never act on the results. After all, how many copies of the Rudman-Hart report do you suppose flew into the dumpster the day it was released? My guess? All of them. Thanks much.
James Gilmore III: Our Commission was established at the beginning of 1999 and produced three reports by the end of 2001. The Commission was then extended for two more years. Out of 79 recommendations in the first three years - 66 have been implemented in whole or in part. We have testified extensively in the Congress and held briefings with the executive branch. Our recommendation in our fourth report for an intelligence fusion center was adopted in concept by the President in his state of the union address this past January. We think we are having an impact on the policy discussion in the country, but it is up to the elected officials of the United States and of the 50 individual states to decide what policies they intend to adopt.
washingtonpost.com: To follow up on your comment about local law enforcement and police and fire departments -- so many police and fire personnel are also military reservists, and many are being called to service in Iraq. How depleted are our resources on the state and local level as a result?
James Gilmore III: Some local law enforcement and fire personnel are being called up. It is still believed that our law enforcement organizations are capable. In any case there are agreements between localities to reinforce each other at the point of attack and response.
Washington, D.C.: When the Get Ready brochure was announced by the Homeland Security Department about a month ago, I called the 800 number to try to get a copy mailed to me. I still have not received it. Is there a number I can call to talk to a real person about getting a copy? I live only one block from the Home Security office near Ward Circle and could easily walk over to get a copy. Is that an option?
Also, The Post today has an article about chemical plants not being adequately prepared for a terrorist attack! How can the Bush administration say they are doing everything possible to protect us when they seem unwilling to enforce tough rules on the chemical plants?
washingtonpost.com: Story: Fearing Litigation, EPA Treads Lightly With Chemical Industry, Despite Terror Threat (Post, March 24, 2003)
James Gilmore III: I suggest you call the Homeland Security Department again. Their number is 202.282.8000. Regarding chemical plants - the EPA does require a vulnerability assessment at each plant. A bridge between private enterprise and the government will be necessary since most critical infrastructure is owned by private enterprise. There is nothing wrong with trying partnership first and considering regulations later only if that doesn't work.
Baton Rouge, La.: Governor:
Why did the Feds come up with the silly color scheme for alert levels? It seems almost to encourage people not to take it seriously. Jokes about a fuschia alert meaning Martha Stewart is on the loose. Why not just a 1 to 5 scale or something?
Forgive the silly question at a dangerous and troubling time, but I figure we could all do with a little levity at the moment. And I really am curious.
James Gilmore III: Have you heard of the new plaid alert? Seriously, there has to be some vehicle for communicating to the public the level of government concern. The color scheme alert is designed to warn the public in order to reduce the shock value intended by the terrorists if there is another attack. We are also communicating to the terrorists directly that we are aware of their plans, in order to deter their attack. This is a limited approach, but better than nothing.
Virginia: You'll probably never answer this question but given how the economy is, how are states suppose to pay for this? As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote long ago, are "taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society."
So with budget cuts in Virginia, how are we suppose to pay for any anti-terrorism plans? Tell children in Medicaid programs to not get sick or be born handicapped? You may be proud of your work on this committee, but you should be ashamed of what you (and those who voted for you) of what your "anti-taxes" program has done in Virginia. You're lucky -- you have a great job which will pay for a safe room, private security, health insurance and a retirement plan.
James Gilmore III: The issue is not whether we pay taxes, but how much in taxes, what kind of taxes, and for what purpose. My tax cut program in Virginia is intended to help individual working men and women have a better quality of life and more control over their own budgets. Government is about setting priorities. Medicaid programs and homeland defense are both very important and should be a first call on tax dollars. I always followed a program of reducing taxes where possible and minimizing the impact of program reductions. The current elected officials are responsible for the choices they make in budget reductions just as I was responsible when I was Governor.
washingtonpost.com: How do you respond to criticism that fiscal policies including tax cuts in states such as Virginia have left them largely unable to deal with homeland security issues?
James Gilmore III: Fiscal policies have not made Virginia unable to deal with homeland security issues. The national recession has reduced revenue, but appropriate homeland security measures should be fundable as a priority. The budget issues are somewhat beside the point. The key is to make good policy decisions about what actually constitutes good homeland security policy, what is should cost, and how to implement it.
Washington, D.C.: As governor of Virginia in the years prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, what knowledge did you have of al Qaeda cells operating in the Northern Virginia area? Following the Sept. 11 attacks, did federal authorities advise you of any efforts they had made to identify potential sources of terrorist activity in the Washington, D.C. suburbs?
James Gilmore III: No information regarding Al Qaeda cells was indicated to me. Because I had been chairing the Commission on Terrorism since 1999, we had put response plans in place in Virginia. I triggered these plans the moment the second tower of the World Trade Center was attacked. The lack of communication between federal, state, and local authorities has been a central focus of our national Commission from the very beginning.
Indianapolis, Ind.: Please explain to us all what specialized training, knowledge and experience you have in areas of terrorism, international security, and nuclear-biological-chemical weapons. Forgive me if I don't quite get the connection to being a former governor and experience in dealing with these issues. Thanks.
James Gilmore III: I was approached by the United States government at the end of 1998 because they wanted a chairman who was aware of the needs of states and localities and first responders. The Commission was not made up of terrorist specialists, but of representatives of states, localities, fire, police, rescue, and health care workers. In fact, one Commission member, Ray Downey, was a leader of the New York Fire Dept. and served all three years on our Commission before being killed at the World Trade Center on September 11th 2001. In addition, we do have representatives from the intelligence community, former military officers, and the former ambassador for terrorism for the State Department. The Commission was intended to get the perspective from experts and those who would actually be in response to a terrorist attack. Sadly, that proved to be the case when as Chairman I also was the Governor of one of the two states directly attacked on September 11th 2001.