Plan of Attack

By Richard Danzig

Anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001 put the nation on alert: Bioterrorism could strike domestically, with devastating effects. The attacks infected 22 people, killed five, shut down parts of the Capitol and the nation's mail system, and highlighted our vulnerability.

In the three years since, the government has invested substantial resources in cities and states to help them prepare for bioterrorist attacks. Within the federal government, the Homeland Security Department and a number of other programs have been created.

Unfortunately, there is a gaping hole. We haven't yet come to grips with the likelihood that a large bioterrorist attack - or worse, a series of attacks - would demand federal leadership and orchestration beyond anything we have experienced, or are organized to accomplish.

Understandably, many people emphasize local responses to bioterrorism. But any incident would inevitably become a federal issue because of its multi-jurisdictional nature - an anthrax cloud dispersed from a single point in Manhattan could cause fatalities in upstate New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, depending on the winds.

Traditional terrorist attacks climax but quickly exhaust themselves - they are incidents, typically followed by pauses. Several facts, however, join to permit biological weapons to be used in a different way. Only small amounts of a biological agent are needed in each attack, large amounts can be produced relatively easily, attacks can escape detection until well after the fact, and an attacker can launch a biological agent from a distance, then relocate. Taken together, these permit an attacker to "reload" and attack city after city. In sum, biological agents lend themselves to moving from individual incidents to terrorism campaigns.

In such a crisis, federal leadership would be required on a massive scale. The federal government would need to meet intense demands for drugs, detection and decontamination equipment. Citizens and local officials would look to federal health, law enforcement and intelligence agencies for advice and help in assessing what has occurred and how to prevent future attacks. In addition, multiple events would provoke tremendous allocation and triage problems.

One model for dealing with bioterrorism is the Pentagon's coordination among the military services during operations abroad. The Pentagon has developed commonality in communications, methods for fusing intelligence, a joint staff, definitively recorded assignments, clearly articulated lines of authority, and, above all, exercises that do not merely test systems and demonstrate requirements, but also teach our soldiers how to perform in harmony in crisis situations.

For the military, this has been a difficult and prolonged struggle - it began 60 years ago during World War II - and it has yielded imperfect results. The stark fact is that we have barely begun the task domestically.

Creating a Homeland Security Department is only the first step to initiating a structural change. Much more is required to focus on the problem and to overcome formidable barriers among organizations as disparate as DHS, the FBI and the Health and Human Services and Defense departments.

To develop a truly coordinated response to bioterrorism, we do not need another government reorganization. Rather, we must generate a common, systemic understanding of attack scenarios and practice interagency and intergovernmental responses. Within that context, we must work out assignments and establish modes of cooperation.

To fulfill the federal government's role, the next administration will need to articulate a common framework and work extensively with the relevant agencies to make it a success. Without strong leadership from the Oval Office, such an initiative is destined to fail. And in this mission that cannot be allowed to fail, we are not likely to have the luxury of a half-century to prepare for the next act.

Richard Danzig is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, a congressionally chartered nonprofit organization that advises leaders on management and governance issues. Presently, he is the Nunn Prize Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He also served as Secretary of the Navy.