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'Terrorist attack' on Las Vegas canceled: Politics over preparedness?

At Sen. Harry Reid's request, the Obama administration canceled a mock 'dirty bomb' terrorist attack exercise in Las Vegas. Critics say the administration is playing politics with national preparedness, but others say a shift to secret surprise tests is a better way to prepare for the worst.

By Staff writer / March 30, 2010

Aladdin and Paris Casinos on the "The Strip" in Las Vegas. Plans for an emergency preparedness exercise there involving a mock 'dirty bomb' have been canceled.

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One thing is definite about this year's federal play-acting exercise to assess national emergency preparedness: A faux radioactive nuke, or "dirty bomb," will not be blowing up the Las Vegas Strip in May.

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Reminiscent of Stephen King's "The Stand" featuring a similar cataclysmic showdown in Vegas, the preparedness exercise proved too much for many Nevadans, already battered by a poor economy and worried about a PR nightmare.

Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, in the midst of battling for the White House's healthcare reforms, wrote late last year that to "simulate a nuclear detonation in the heart of the city would unacceptably harm the Southern Nevadan economy."

More recently, President Obama had rankled Nevadans when he suggested that gambling on the Vegas Strip wasn’t the wisest move “when you’re trying to save for college." When Senator Reid complained about the comment, Mr. Obama was quick to apologize.

Will there be an exercise somewhere else?

Against that practical and political backdrop, the Obama administration scratched Vegas as the National Level Exercise host city late last year. That leaves the NLE 2010, which involves 10,000 responders, still on the calendar but without a practice field: DHS has yet to publicly announce the city – or even the scenario – it plans to use in mid-May. (It usually takes upward of a year to plan an NLE exercise.)

“NLE 2010 is currently in the final stages of planning for this spring," writes FEMA spokesman Brad Carroll in an e-mail. "We will continue to reach out to key stakeholders, including state and local officials, to receive their input as we prepare for and continue to develop this important event.”

The possibility that politics may have affected a national preparedness event rankles some Republicans on Capitol Hill, especially after Obama in July halted a Bush-era "scenario planning" program to review its effectiveness.

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