Transcript of Background Briefing with Senior DHS Officials on TOPOFF 3

New Page 1 Press Releases For Immediate Release Office of the Press Secretary Contact: 202-282-8010 April 8, 2005

WASHINGTON - Senior DHS Official:  Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.  As you know, today we're concluding really a five-day operational execution phase of TOPOFF 3, which is basically built on top of a layer of about two years' worth of very detailed, comprehensive, and I can assure you, stressful planning.  As I end the last day of my involvement in the exercise, but really two years' worth of activities, relationship building, and working out procedures and protocols.  

 We have learned a great deal from the exercise process itself in its execution phase.  But I really also want to stress a lot of learning took place during the planning process, interacting not only with our state and local government counterparts, but for the first time in this TOPOFF exercise series, a very robust participation from the private sector, and actually very aggressive participation on the part of the government of Canada in its emergency management and counterterrorism functions, as well as those same functions on the part of the government of the United Kingdom.  And a lot of great information sharing processes and procedures were executed during this event.

As you know, we deliberately built the scenario as a very complex WMD bioterrorism attack in New Jersey, as well as a kind of a dual-header in the state of Connecticut in terms of a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, and then a simultaneous chemical attack.

The system in TOPOFF 3 across the board was tested as never before, and this was deliberate.  We wanted to test the full range of our incident management processes and protocols that spanned prevention, intelligence and information-sharing, and then the more ic or traditional response and recovery.  But really for the first time in a national-level exercise, we really got at a near simultaneous WMD attack which is, of course, very, very stressful for the federal folks, as well as our state, local and international partners.

And just when we thought we had turned the corner on this, our friends in the United Kingdom got hit about halfway through the exercise.  And of course, terrorism is not a localized or even a national phenomenon, it's an international phenomenon.  And that generated a lot of great interaction between us and our partners at all levels.

We've pulled together for this operation in both the planning and execution phases, about 275 federal departments and agencies, state and local organizations from the government side of the house as well as the first responder community.  And again, the private sector, as well.  So this was a Herculean effort just in terms of the great participation we got, and really our heartfelt thanks go out to all those folks that made this happen, from the governors and the mayors all the way down to the people that were -- simulating victims of the attacks.

Four major objectives, I would say, for TOPOFF 3.  First and foremost was our ability to manage and respond as a nation to a horrific set of twin WMD attacks.  This was the first time that we've actually energized our recently issued National Incident Management System and our National Response Plan.  And I can assure you, we took these two cars off the showroom floor and we took them on a very, very challenging test ride.  I'm reminded of the commercials I've seen recently of the Jeep driving through all terrain, and it comes out with a lot of mud on it, which is to be expected when you put it through the test.  

We built under the National Response Plan a series of coordination protocols at the national level that also have linkages down into our state and local partners, as well as out to our private sector partners, and we played those as robustly as we could.  I must say with the caveat, we deliberately built in the maximum stress possible across all phases of the exercise.  As most of you know, we began the exercise operational phase actually the first week in March with an intelligence and information buildup, which actually had built into it a couple different preventable acts, if, of terms of we had our act together with our state and local partners information sharing-wise, we should have been able to prevent a couple of attacks, which, in fact, we did during the course of the exercise.

But had we prevented all of the acts, we would not have had a full-scale event this week.  So we deliberately built in some failures in the system in terms of -- that allowed some attacks to take place where we built in, again, in a predetermined manner a lot of different casualties and different venues so that we could fully test and get play for all aspects of the first responder community across various disciplines.  So a lot of that was deliberate and a function of the exercise, design and control process.  

Again, we have very good feelings about how our National Incident Management System and National Response Plan performed on this test ride.  And we're anxious to continue tweaking those documents now as we build our actually an interesting phase now; we have the baseline documents that we're now going to build standard operating procedures and operational supplements that will build the details and the lessons learned in the relationships that we've built as a result of this exercise into a follow-on set of operator-type protocols that will be put into effect.  

The second major objective this TOPOFF was to really get a handle on information-sharing across all levels of government here in the United States, out to the private sector, and then importantly try to figure out how that process works with Canada and with the United Kingdom.

And again, I have some good news to report in that area.  A lot of information-sharing done real time, very complex across all these different jurisdictions and across international boundaries.  A great example of that process at work is that when we were locked and cocked here at the Orange level, and then yesterday we had the horrific subway bombings happen in London, we pulsed our folks in London for information about the actual dynamics of that attack and were able to get that information within a very short amount of time back here at DHS headquarters, work with the FBI and our state Homeland Security advisory network to push out the particulars of that attack to our state and local law enforcement partners, so that they were able to get the word out to the major transit systems across the United States on how we thought that attack went down in London and were able to export some advisories and cautionary information out to our communities of interest in the United States prior to our evening rush hour people coming home from work across the Eastern seaboard, which was very useful.

The third major objective, of course, of TOPOFF was to test our public communications strategies, protocols and processes, because as you all are very much aware, the physical damage associated with a horrific WMD terrorism attack has to be managed through a coordinated public affairs messaging across all levels of government, every one in sync, every one on the same message explaining ground truth about what is happening and what is not happening, and then fashioning a coordinated set of public -- or communications to the public so we can get our arms around the incident and begin the lifesaving process and minimize the panic and public perception on a negative sense.

We thought that we did a great job setting up our national-level processes here that are interagency in nature, as well as setting up joint information centers in both venues, so at the local level we had an integrated federal, state, local and private sector team that was on board with the same message throughout the exercise in a very positive way.

And the fourth objective, and now this begins a very detailed and comprehensive process -- the exercise ain't over yet.  It's not over until we fully capture all the lessons learned, document them, and hear from all parties involved in about a four- to six-month process as the next phase.  This is perhaps the most significant phase of the exercise for us because we capture things where we've done good, where we need to make improvement.  In those areas where we need to make improvements, we build them in to our protocols in an ever bettering process.

We're better now than we were in TOPOFF 2, and we're going to be much better in TOPOFF 4.  But I'm confident that we're acting even now on some things that we picked up during the exercise so that if an incident occurred tomorrow, we're going to be much better off.

Again, we bill this as the largest, most complex, comprehensive and dynamic exercise counterterrorism-wise we've ever conducted in the United States.  And I can assure you that we stressed every part of that system, including me, personally, and put it on the line.  And great kudos for everyone that subjected their jurisdictions to all this activity and for pulling together as a team.  And I think actually the people of the United States would be proud of the job that their different governmental jurisdictions did to get them through this very horrific sequence of events.

That's all I have from the operational execution pieces of this.  Now I'd like to turn it over another official to talk about some of the planning and preparedness aspects.

Senior DHS Official: Thanks.  Just to follow up briefly, and then we're going to into questions.  As previously indicated, huge thanks go out to lots of folks, not just at state and local level, although huge thanks do go to those folks in the states of Connecticut, New Jersey, as well as up in Canada and the U.K., but also huge thanks to the folks across the interagency at the federal levels who participated actively in this process, helped us develop the process to get where it was for the last five days, and then execute.  Huge thanks to [my colleague] and his team for the level of involvement, and then thanks to the media, as well, for your attention to this process.

I know a lot of you have been out in New Jersey and Connecticut and here in Washington actively participating from a viewing standpoint to report on what we're doing.  So I think that's all good and part of the learning curve for us.

Previously mentioned, we now hit this fourth element, which is really the after-action process.  And I had the privilege, I guess, of being out in Connecticut for a day, in New Jersey for a day, and then here in Washington for day, all visiting various elements of what we were doing, whether it was the master control cell, the venue control cell, the venue sites.  And what I saw was massive amounts of engagement at all levels, which is a good thing.  Levels of government, across disciplines, engaged in this exercise.  That importance of that full engagement is it's going to allow us to have the most robust after-action report that we can have.  In all those locations, we had data-collectors whose entire focus in time this week was spent collecting data that would then populate the after-action report, which is really what leads us toentify what we did or did not do well, and then helps us close the gaps for vulnerabilities that existed at a certain level of government, across government, and within disciplines.  So very important element.

Two final points.  Again, this was the first time we really injected a very robust prevention element into the exercise, given what has occurred in terms of the 9/11 Commission and other elements.  That was an important new step, next step for the TOPOFF program so that we could really start testing our prevention capabilities in terms of not only making sure we find the bits of data that are in the intelligence streams but also analyzing it and then sharing it appropriately.  And so that's a good thing, and I look forward to seeing what the after-action report says about how we did there.

And finally, what I think is often overlooked with the TOPOFF program that I think is equally as important is not just the actual exercise itself, but frankly, the relationships that are built across government, across disciplines in the two years that lead up to the exercise and in the five days of the exercise, so that people get to know across the country who it is that they actually do turn to, who do they call when these things are occurring, how do we begin to establish those relationships that are going to be the relationships we're going to need to depend on if something does occur.

And so I think that's a very important piece of this exercise program, as well, are those relationships that are forged across the country and in this case now, internationally.  And so with that, I will end my comments and turn it back over.

Senior DHS Official:  Okay, we'll go ahead and take the Q&A now.

Question:  I guess I would hope that you could entify some things that have already -- are evident, that I know that you're going to be spending some time with this after-action report, but what are some things that are already obvious to you, areas where you feel that there needs to be some work?  Such as, for example, in Connecticut, apparently, the state Department of Health was saying that it was not safe for people to go outside while there was a guy on DNN from the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms saying that the site had been cleared and it was safe to go outside.  Are you aware of that incident?  Are there other things like that that have already become apparent that are obvious that you need to work on?

Senior DHS Official: I can't stress enough the importance for us to take a step back and really wait for the after-action process to unfold so we canentify those various anecdotes that you may or may not have heard over the last five days and may or may not be accurate.

And so I want to make sure before I comment on these types of things that I let the after-action report play out so that we get what real information is out there, what really occurred, and what we need to really fix.  Anything short of that starts getting to be somewhat myopic.

Question: So there's nothing at all that's become apparent to you, there's nothing that was evident superficially without having the specifics that it was clear that there was an area that you needed to do some work, not a single thing?

Senior DHS Official:  Again, I didn't say that.  What I did say was I wanted the after-action process to play out so that we canentify what did or did not occur beyond what anecdotes may have been reported at various levels, or talked about at various levels.  So I want to have some assurances that the after-action process has a chance to play out, that weentify what did or did not occur, what mistakes may or may not have been made so we can then start working forward in closing the gaps and fixing those vulnerabilities.

Senior DHS Official:  I have a comment that I'd like to make in terms of, I think for me the single most important thing in terms of a lesson learned, a positive lesson learned, is really the importance of prior planning with our state and local and private sector partners in order to g