'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.
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Canceling the Vegas exercise "just plays into the narrative ... that the public cannot handle any discussion of serious potential terror threats," writes John Solomon, a blogger who says he's writing a book about emergency preparedness. "As a result, it prevents our leaders from having an open dialogue which might actually improve our ability to respond."Skip to next paragraph
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But the president's supporters, including those deep inside the nation's emergency preparedness ranks, say the Obama White House may be shifting away from large-scale "open book" tests, practiced during President Bush's tenure, and toward "no-notice," or secretly planned, tests that thrust emergency managers into unexpected, sink-or-swim scenarios.
Surprise exercises may be a better test
"The administration is reasonably asking questions about how the NLE program is constructed, what are the outcomes, how are the lessons learned used, which is all fair game," says Craig Vanderwagen, who served as assistant secretary for preparedness and response in the Department of Health and Human Services until his retirement last fall. "There is a school of thought that says, 'Let's do some no-notice testing and see what we've got.' And if you judge by the intensity by which the president and the White House have directed reviews on a lot of these activities, [no-notice] tests are within the realm of possibility."
That would represent a major shift for a national emergency preparedness plan that spans local, county, state, regional, and federal agencies. Cooperation under that plan is often marred by inadequate funding at various levels of government, as well as issues that limit the ability of Washington to fully control response scenarios.
Changing the NLE would test Obama's ability to maneuver a maze of congressional oversight that has often failed to close basic gaps in national preparedness, including first responders' ability to use a common radio system to communicate with one another.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on NLE 2010.
"The tendency right now is to be more focused on biological events [such as a pandemic] as opposed to manmade disasters, but we can't ignore the fact that there are still bad guys with evil intent doing bad things that could involve radiation and nuclear," says Mr. Vanderwagen. "The impact on our society of such an event would be huge – the idea of not being able to use New York City for a generation if we had that kind of exposure."