Justice Department Ill-Prepared for WMD Strike, Report Says

(Jun. 2) -An FBI SWAT team member is checked for radiological contamination during a 2007 emergency response drill. The FBI is the only U.S. Justice Department branch adequately prepared to respond to a WMD attack, the department's inspector general said in a report made public yesterday (FBI photo).
(Jun. 2) -An FBI SWAT team member is checked for radiological contamination during a 2007 emergency response drill. The FBI is the only U.S. Justice Department branch adequately prepared to respond to a WMD attack, the department's inspector general said in a report made public yesterday (FBI photo).

The U.S. Justice Department is wholly unready to safeguard the general public in the aftermath of a WMD strike on the United States, according to a report released yesterday by the agency's inspector general (see GSN, April 19).

The Justice Department is charged with organizing federal law enforcement operations following an attack with biological, chemical or nuclear weapons and to assume command if the situation outstrips the capabilities of local and state police agencies, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"We are totally unprepared," an anonymous DOJ official said in the report produced by the department's inspector general. "Right now, being totally effective would never happen. Everybody would be winging it."

The inspector general lauded the FBI for fulfilling preparation mandates but concluded that other individual DOJ agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- charged with spearheading public safety efforts following a WMD strike -- had not met planning requirements.

The report also found that no single DOJ official has been charged with coordinating or directing WMD response efforts and that the Justice Department had failed to bring up to date its procedures to take into account new federal emergency response postures.

While the FBI trains personnel in preparation for a WMD attack and routinely stages and is involved in response drills, no other Justice Department agency carries out similar activities, the inspector general found.

Justice officials found that "the fundamental conclusion of the report is sound" and pledged to make improvements.

This most recent criticism of federal WMD preparation activities follows a string of reports that have faulted Washington for being poorly prepared to handle an unconventional weapons strike. At the beginning of the year, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism gave the Obama administration an "F" for its bioterrorism defense efforts (see GSN, Jan. 26).

A review panel for the Defense Department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency concluded in 2008 that efforts were inadequate "in all three pillars of the national strategy to combat WMD: prevention, protection and response." The panel also found that a series of 2002 recommendations to improve preparedness had yet to be carried out (see GSN, Aug. 14, 2008).

"The presidential requirements have been ignored," former Bush administration Assistant Defense Secretary Paul McHale said. "There is a sense of complacency that has settled in nearly a decade after Sept. 11."

In the event of a WMD event, the Homeland Security Department would direct national-level responses with all large federal agencies having specific assignments. Individual agencies had previously been ordered to come up with response strategies for unconventional weapons strikes that featured biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear weapons (Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times, June 1).

The internal Justice Department report did not touch on the WMD response assignments of other federal departments like Homeland Security and the Pentagon, the New York Times reported.

Responding to the report, Associate Deputy Attorney General James Baker said someone within the deputy attorney general's office would be chosen in the coming weeks to manage DOJ response efforts. The Justice Department also intends to set up a panel to analyze its emergency response procedures to ensure they are current and strong, he said in a letter last month.

The ATF bureau is assigned to organize any federal law enforcement response to a WMD situation, but had failed to outline who would coordinate that effort or create a list of individuals and equipment that could be dispatched, according to the report. The Drug Enforcement Administration, Marshals Service and other Justice Department branches were found to face largely identical issues.

The FBI Washington office was singled out as the only DOJ unit in the Washington, D.C. area to have made adequate preparations for a WMD incident (Eric Schmitt, New York Times, June 1).

June 2, 2010
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The U.S. Justice Department is wholly unready to safeguard the general public in the aftermath of a WMD strike on the United States, according to a report released yesterday by the agency's inspector general (see GSN, April 19).