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Terrorist attacks against U.S. personnel and interests domestically and abroad highlight the need for effective U.S. efforts to combat terrorism. U.S. policy and implementing guidelines call for robust, tailored, and rapidly deployable interagency teams to conduct well-coordinated and highly integrated operations. Federal agencies enhance their ability to respond to terrorist incidents by conducting exercises that train key personnel and test response plans. We recently briefed your staffs on our analysis of federal counterterrorist exercise data that we had gathered in producing our February 1999 classified report to you. This report summarizes the contents of those briefings. Our objective was to determine the numbers, types, scenarios, and participants involved in federal counterterrorism exercises conducted from June 1995 to June 1998.


Presidential directives assign leadership and supporting roles to various federal agencies. Federal agencies' activities to combat terrorism include responding to a terrorist crisis and managing the consequences after a terrorist attack. Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 39, issued in June 1995, required key federal agencies to ensure that their counterterrorist capabilities are well exercised. Counterterrorism exercises include tabletop exercises, in which agency officials discuss scenarios around a table or other similar setting, and field exercises, where agency leadership and operational units actually deploy to practice their skills and


coordination in a realistic field setting. One of the highest priorities in the federal government is to prepare for terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD).1

Results in Brief

Federal agencies conducted 201 counterterrorism exercises in the 3 years following PDD 39. The number of exercises per year more than tripled over the 3-year period, with the largest increase in the last year. Agencies used a variety of types of exercises and scenarios during this period. More than half of the exercises were field exercises (where command and response personnel actually deployed with their equipment), and the rest were tabletop exercises (where personnel discussed a particular scenario). Very few of the exercises included no-notice deployments of personnel and equipment. Over one-half of the exercises dealt with managing the immediate crisis resulting from a terrorist incident, including stopping a terrorist attack, while the others dealt with managing the consequences of the incident, such as caring for the injured. Until recently, very few exercises dealt with the likely situation of both crisis and consequence management occurring simultaneously. More than two-thirds of the exercises had WMD scenarios, while the others had more traditional and more likely terrorist scenarios involving conventional arms and explosives. Over half of the WMD exercises used scenarios that used chemical agents.

There was a variety of participants in these exercises. More than two-thirds of the exercises included more than one federal agency and almost one-half of them included three or more federal agencies. Some exercises also included participants of organizations other than federal agencies. For example, one-third of the exercises included state and/or local government participants, almost one-tenth of them had nongovernmental participants, and a few had foreign government participants. Federal agencies played various roles in these exercises, depending on their roles and their level of participation.

For the purpose of this report, we define WMD as chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons or agents. Within the federal government, there is disagreement as to the precise definition, especially whether large conventional explosives should be included.

This report contains no recommendations. However, in our February 1999 classified report on interagency counterterrorist operations, we made five recommendations to several agencies to improve counterterrorist exercises. 2

Agency Comments

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We received oral comments from the Department of State, the Department of Defense (DOD), the U.S. Secret Service (USSS), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). In general, these agencies stated that the report was an accurate reflection of federal counterterrorist exercises conducted in the period we reviewed. Many of these agencies provided technical comments, which we incorporated as appropriate.

The FBI commented that the report was an accurate empirical survey of federal counterterrorist exercises. However, the FBI believed that clarification would be beneficial in four areas: tabletop exercises, state and local participation in exercises, no-notice exercises, and our methodology to collect and analyze exercises led by federal agencies. The FBI said that tabletop exercises can sometimes take months to prepare for and that it was sometimes difficult to get state and local officials to participate in federal exercises. We changed the text to reflect these comments.

Regarding no-notice exercises, the FBI noted some of the difficulties
involved in conducting these type of exercises in a domestic scenario.
According to the FBI, no-notice exercises, especially those broad in scope,
can be disruptive to an agency's normal functions and daily responsibilities.
It noted that the FBI's ability to dedicate resources and personnel to
no-notice exercises is limited by its primary mission to investigate
violations of federal law. According to the FBI, the primary goal of the
exercise program should be to train the participants in the crisis
management process, not to test how fast they can respond to a no-notice
exercise. PDD 39 and the guidelines and plans that implement it call for
robust rapidly deployable interagency teams. Thus, we believe that it is also
important to test how fast federal teams can respond to a no-notice event.
Such exercises could lead to improvements in recall and deployment
procedures to ensure that state and local first responders receive federal
assistance as soon as possible. Along these lines, the Senate Committee on
Appropriations recently directed the Attorney General to conduct
no-notice exercises with domestic scenarios that include the participation
of all key personnel who would participate in the consequence
management of a major terrorist event involving the use of a chemical,
biological, or cyber weapon.

2For an unclassified summary of this report, see Combating Terrorism: Issues to Be Resolved to Improve Counterterrorist Operations (GAONSIAD-99-135, May 13, 1999). This summary, however, does not contain our recommendations because they were classified.

Regarding our methodology, the FBI commented that the number of
FBI-sponsored exercises identified in our report was incomplete because
we focused on national level exercises. The data included in the report was
based on information that the FBI and other agencies provided to us during
our review. We provided our list of exercises to FBI and other agencies to
review for completeness and accuracy. To the extent the agencies, such as
FBI, were not aware of counterterrorist exercises that their field offices led
or participated in, we may not have included such exercises in our analysis.
FBI also commented that our methodology consisted of a simple tally of
conducted exercises rather than a more in-depth analysis of exercise
scope, objectives, and number and type of participants. We did perform
such an analysis in our February 1999 classified report, which included five
recommendations to several agencies (including FBI) to improve
counterterrorist exercises.

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We focused our analysis on federal counterterrorism exercises in the 3-year period following the issuance of PDD 39. To gather data on exercises, we obtained documents and interviewed officials at the Department of State, DOD, USSS, FBI, FEMA, HHS, EPA, DOE, VA, and ATF. We compiled a list of 201 counterterrorism exercises that were conducted from June 1995 to June 1998. To ensure the accuracy of our list of exercises, appropriate federal agencies reviewed it for completeness and accuracy. We also observed interagency meetings, planning sessions, and exercises. We performed our analysis in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards between March 1999 and May 1999 on data we gathered in 1997 and 1998.

This report is organized into three briefing sections. Section I includes background information. Section II presents our analysis of all federal counterterrorist exercises, including their number, type, focus, scenarios, and participants. Section III presents similar information on individual

agencies. For the four agencies that led most of the exercises, our data is presented in terms of the exercises that they led. For the other six agencies that participated in many exercises, but led relatively few, the data is presented in terms of the exercises in which they participated.

As agreed with your offices, unless you publicly announce the contents of this report earlier, we plan no further distribution until 30 days after its issuance date. At that time we will send copies to appropriate congressional committees, the federal agencies discussed in this report, and to the Honorable Jacob Lew, Director of the Office of Management and Budget. We also will make copies available to other interested parties upon request.

If you have any questions about this report, please contact me at (202) 512-5140. Major contributors to this report are listed in appendix I.

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