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Bioterrorism Drill TOPOFF 2 -- Failing to think like al Qaeda & relearning old lessons


A fictional terrorist group, GLODO, carries out a simultaneous attack again Chicago using pneumonic plague and Seattle using a radiological bomb. Such was the premise of a May 2003 public safety exercise known as TOPOFF 2 -- for "Top Officials 2" -- and designed to test and improve US domestic response to terrorist incidents including WMD.

DHS and State sponsored the 5-day, $16 million full-scale exercise and simulation event in an effort to improve upon the results of TOPOFF 2000 held in Denver and involved a fictitious germ warfare attack. While Chicago and Seattle volunteered for exercise, these cities were chosen for TOPOFF 2 due to their proximity to Canada as one of the goals of the simulation was to test coordination between the two countries.

Although no explosives or harmful substances were used, real first responders worked simulated crime scenes and treated volunteers pretending to be victims. Although both cities were expecting an "attack," many details remained secret so that first responders and government officials would be surprised. GLODO had clandestine bioweapons labs in each city.

Nineteen Federal Agencies, the American Red Cross, State and Local Emergency Responders from the states of Illinois and Washington, as well as Canada were involved. The exercise provided valuable lessons, including the realization that multiple control centers, numerous liaisons, and increasing numbers of response teams only complicated the emergency effort. (Programmers will recognize the "mythical man month" syndrome.)

DHS released its unclass summary of TOPOFF 2 in late 2003. Performance improvements were noted over TOPOFF 2000, but communications, local coordination, and timely information transfer remain a sharp problem. In each city of each event, we learn that the diseases are fearsome, hospitals and first responders are overwhelmed and interagency and intra-agency coordination is pummeled.

The difficulty with this exercise, and those who planned it, is that whoever GLODO is modeled on, it is not al Qaeda. Yes, disaster preparedness is valid; yes, the Chicago pneumonic plague simulation was fierce in terms of fatalities -- 70 % is common and it is more contagious than smallpox; and yes, the Seattle radiological device was more disruptive than fatal -- authorities had predictable difficulty in estimating the size and direction of the plume.

TOPOFF missed the lessons that al Qaeda learned between its two attacks of the World Trade Center, 1993 and 2001: Redundancy and Delivery. Despite the achievements of TOPOFF 2, there is still too much "feel good" security and too little asymmetrical thinking. TOPOFF 2 only succeeded in highlighting the FEMA mass dislocation problem and the strains that this placed on local authorities.

While such attacks can certainly occur, the risk that a TOPOFF 2 attack would be discovered is high. Al Qaeda is the most rational and fiscally conservative of terrorists. They would lean to using technologies that enables use of multiple attacks and wait until enough payload had been assembled for a unprecedented multiple WMD or conventional attack. Neither TOPOFF 2000 nor TOPOFF 2 has simulated these more logical scenarios.

Few politicians and disaster planners in either the US or Canada have much experience in sorting out the credible from fanciful risks. This is not to fault them as it requires much specialized training in the mindset of this particular enemy. In the absence of understanding the asymmetrical attack of al Qaeda -- or the IRA for that matter, these TOPOFF events smack of "feel good" security and a means to prove that officials are ‘proactive’ in domestic security in an otherwise expensive test whose advertised $16 M cost did not cover person-hours, cost to local jurisdictions, or economic disruptions.

While the two most deadly attacks on US soil were a fertilizer bomb in Oklahoma and low tech air piracy in NYC and DC, major dollars and attention has been lavished on the most high-tech scenarios. Events like TOPOFF 2 encourage a focus on the improbable with spending to match, while ignoring more probable threats and appropriate dedication of resources.

For example, a program dubbed BioWatch would install monitoring systems in major US cities to provide early warning for pathogen release. Such a system only succeeds if the released pathogen is on its ‘detection list,’ release is outdoors rather than indoors -- such as in a major building’s HVAC system, and the release is either near a detector or released in great quantity.

Where is the attention to the fact that both Chicago and Seattle have large urban hubs immediately adjacent to harbors where boats can anchor -- not to mention smaller adjacent airports? One does not need the complexity of GLODO having created full scale bioweapons labs in each city. Simple high explosives and modestly refined anthrax would have done just fine.

I found it interesting that although DHS released its event summary in late 2003, a succinct version much more to the point was published months earlier in ‘Police and Security News’ titled, "Communicating at TOPOFF 2: A Keystone in Terrorism Response."

If you are interested in the lessons learned from TOPOFF 2, Go to Police and Security News. Look in the archives for the JULY / AUGUST 2003 issue and you will find "Communicating at TOPOFF 2: A Keystone in Terrorism Response."

Gordon Housworth

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