Governors Run Through Hypothetical Terror Attack With Ridge

AP Breaking News

By Robert Tanner The Associated Press
Published: Jul 19, 2004

SEATTLE (AP) - Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge gave governors a taste of terror Monday, playing out a simulated "tabletop" bioterrorism attack and likely responses - from trying to keep the public informed and calm to carrying out massive vaccinations.

Gathered here for the final day of a National Governors Association meeting, state leaders brought their own concerns about homeland security to the simulation. Some worried about administrative logjams over money. Others talked of pressure on the National Guard.

"How do the state government, local governments and federal government interact? That's why we're here," Ridge said. "At the end of the day ... the homeland is secure when the home towns are secure."

The exercise comes at a critical time, with increased chatter about a potential attack during the election season - even as Ridge's agency has kept the official terror alert at "yellow," the midpoint on the five-step terror alert system.

Behind closed doors, governors were faced with a scenario of simultaneous bioterrorist attacks in cities in several unspecified states, then discussed responses through several steps - from the first credible report, to engaging law enforcement, intelligence, and information officials to deploying of stockpiled vaccines.

The hypothetical attack involved anthrax, brought into the country by al-Qaida through the ports and spread by crop-duster planes, according to one person attending the private meeting. Governors were particularly interested in how much information they would get from the federal government, and discussion included the state of readiness of bioterror vaccines.

Governors welcomed the simulation, even if the exercise was something less than a full-blown terrorist exercise, which usually lasts for a day or two and brings in officials from all agencies that would be involved.

"This is just a little taste," said Democrat Janet Napolitano of Arizona, who as a former U.S. Attorney took part in earlier exercises. "If they're well run, I've always found them to be very helpful."

"It really forces all the governors to go through these decisions," said Bob Taft of Ohio, a Republican.

Shying away from the open partisan complaints that marked many of the weekend's discussions on domestic issues, most governors embraced the overall effort by Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor, to get security resources to states.

"We've had an excellent working relationship," said Democrat Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania. "Can we prevent all possibilities? Absolutely not ... But we've been able to get a lot of the money we need."

Republican Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who headed a task force that identified the weaknesses of homeland security from the perspective of state and local officials, said there continues to be a problem with getting federal money quickly to front line responders.

Romney said it was a problem at all levels, federal, state and local, but some Democrats said the Bush administration could do more to ease administrative rules that require financially strapped local governments to buy equipment first, and then seek reimbursement.

"Many of our communities can't afford to do that," Napolitano said. "I'd give them a C-plus." Democrat Jim Doyle of Wisconsin said: "It's created a kind of bottleneck, when everyone points fingers at everyone."

Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, a Democrat, said he and other governors had continuing worries about the pressures on their various National Guard units, which have been heavily deployed for service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We're not complaining. But it has an effect. The fiscal impact is tremendous," not only for smaller communities that may lose crucial law enforcement and other officials to extended deployments, but for their families, since many Guard members have families to support.

Romney said that, so far, all of the funds have focused on preparing communities to respond to a terrorist attack. More needs to be targeted toward data gathering, analysis and intelligence at the state and local level.

"We have not focused on prevention," he said. "What should the state police and local police role be?"