SET ASIDE the "what if" speculation about bioterrorism. It already happened, and the response to the first bioterrorism attack on U.S. soil is less than reassuring. Four years after mail laced with anthrax bacteria took the lives of five people, sickened 17 others, brought the U.S. mail system to its knees, and forced the evacuation and shutdown of Congress and the Supreme Court, whoever was responsible for the attacks remains at large. What's more, another major terrorist attack in the Washington region, as Post writers Sari Horwitz and Christian Davenport report, would result in the kind of chaos witnessed in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. This area, with one major exception, is little safer today than it was in 2001.

The vulnerability of area residents stands in sharp contrast to the protection afforded official occupants of the nation's capital. Capitol Hill and the White House are fortresses with mini-armies and high-tech equipment galore. In addition, congressional brass, occupants of the presidential mansion and a select group of federal officials have evacuation routes mapped out and staff to tell them what to do and where to go in an emergency. In the event of an attack, the only option available to confused downtown workers, neighborhood residents and visitors to the city is bedlam of the variety on display in New Orleans or no timely or useful information at all -- as postal employees at the Brentwood facility learned when anthrax first appeared.

The official scramble to protect the Washington area since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks bears a striking resemblance to the anthrax investigation. The federal government launched an exhaustive anthrax investigation: 8,000 interviews; dozens of house and laboratory searches; probes on four continents; indications of an FBI hard at work. Likewise, the post-Sept. 11 street closures, checkpoints, barricades, emergency drills, new SWAT teams, snipers and state-of-the-art command centers in Washington all speak to government doing something big to prepare for hostile attacks. But in one significant respect, the anthrax investigation and the post-Sept. 11 response share a likeness: Both have failed to achieve their goals. The anthrax culprit remains at large, and terrorism, because of faulty federal and local planning and coordination, could still turn this region upside down.

Having lost confidence in the federal government's ability to come in and be part of the solution to a regional catastrophe, a local leader said, "We've got to take all the plans that relied on the federal government and throw them out and start over again." Whether area governments should go that far is another matter. What is clear, however, based on the federal response to the major terrorism incidents that have already struck this area, is that responsi- bility for homeland security rests much closer to home than jurisdictions encompassed in the Washington region could ever have imagined only four years ago.