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American Cities Unprepared?

June 30, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: A new study released today by the Council on Foreign Relations paints an alarming picture American communities’ ability to respond to another major terrorist attack. The study concludes that “The United States has not reached a sufficient level of emergency preparedness and remains dangerously unprepared to handle a catastrophic attack on American soil, particularly one involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear agents or coordinated high-impact conventional means.”

The report says funding for emergency responders, i.e., police, fire, medical and public health agencies, may need to be tripled over the next five years. Here to discuss the findings are two members of the panel: Its chairman, Warren Rudman, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, who is currently a member of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He co-chaired a previous commission warning of catastrophic attacks on American soil nine months before Sept. 11; and the senior adviser to the task force, Richard Clarke, former National Security Council chief for terrorism during the Clinton administration and early in the Bush administration. He was in that job on 9/11.

Welcome to you both.

This is a very alarming response, Senator Rudman, that the country is still unprepared. You’re talking now about responding to an attack if it comes.


MARGARET WARNER: What led you to that conclusion?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: We took a number of months talking to every emergency group in America: Police chiefs, firemen, fire chiefs associations, hospitals, emergency medical technicians and so forth. And we simply asked the question: if a chemical or a biological attack were to occur, or a nuclear or radiological attack, are you prepared to deal with it? The answer was universally no.

I want to make it clear we’re not here to criticize anyone: the Congress, the administration. It’s not surprising that even coming up on two years that we’re not prepared, but the firemen and policemen, who are our first line of defense certainly are entitled to the same kind of equipment going into their form of combat that our troops had in Iraq. They need interoperable communications equipment. They need chemical and biological protective gear. The public health agencies need ways to decide what we’re dealing with.

And the fact is that these people – and this is where all the information came from – told us unequivocally, they are not yet prepared and they’re a long way from it. And that really is almost indisputable.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us the specifics, Mr. Clarke, in terms of what the police lack or what public health agencies lack or what firefighters lack in general.

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, in almost every major metropolitan area, police lack – and fire departments lack – secure, reliable communication. We lost hundreds of firemen in New York on 9/11 because the radios didn’t work inside the building. That would happen again today in almost every American city.

In almost every American city, the majority of firemen do not have re-breathers, the policemen do not have protective gear, the entire metropolitan area doesn’t have a plan to deal with mass casualties, particularly mass casualties of involved contamination. So every single element – fire, police, communications, emergency response, hospitals, doctors – all across the board in every major metropolitan area are way, way short of where everybody thinks they ought to be.

MARGARET WARNER: Does every community in America though, Senator, need this level of equipment and training? I mean, is it really practical to expect a small town in, I don’t know, Idaho or Wyoming to have the same kind of equipment and training that, say, New York has?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Probably not, which brings us to the other major recommendation that we had, and that was that there has to be a nationally mandated threat and risk assessment made by the Department of Homeland Security and determine the minimum standards required for communities of various sizes, various population densities.

Now to their credit, the Department of Homeland Security is undergoing such a research effort. We think it is a crisis; we think it needs to be speeded up. It’s not that people aren’t trying to do the right thing. We just think that we’re possibly running out of time because most of us and certainly, you know, Richard Clarke has worked at the highest levels of this government in national security and terrorism, and I have worked in some of those same areas over the years, and I think we would both tell you that we believe that the likelihood of a terrorist attack in this country in the next several years is more likely than unlikely.

So you have to decide how you’re going to allocate these resources. Obviously New York City and Washington, D.C. need different kinds of equipment and different kinds of training than, let’s say, a Manchester, New Hampshire. This is not a political or a partisan issue. It’s an issue that comes down to the basic safety of Americans.

MARGARET WARNER: If you take what is being spent now and what is being done now, Mr. Clarke, is that kind of prioritizing taking place?

RICHARD CLARKE: No. The problem is that there’s no process. There’s no way that the Congress can answer the question, how much is enough? There’s no way that Congress can answer the question, if I add 10 percent, what more do I get for it? And what we’re recommending is that the Congress require of the administration a process, so that we can quantify our goals and quantify how far along we are rather than yelling at each other.

The Department of Homeland Security said today we inflated the numbers, we were talking about gold-plated telephones. There’s no point in arguing about the numbers. We need a process that allows us all to see how we get those numbers and allows the Congress to say, “I’m willing to assume this amount of risk but not that amount of risk.” We don’t have that kind of process today, so the Congress is forced to guess on how much money is enough.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: And the other problem is – and we say it very clear in the report – although we know precisely what the federal allocation is for emergency responders… it’s very hard to get a precise number on what the states and locales are spending. That’s why we give —

MARGARET WARNER: There’s a huge gap.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: That’s why we put these huge ranges in, but I will tell you this: That an intensive effort on the part of this government to determine those numbers with some finality can be done. It can be done reasonably quickly. The federal government has the resources to do it. And then once we know, then we can decide what the amount is. But we know this: it is a great deal more than is being currently spent.

MARGARET WARNER: But let’s go back to their criticism that the numbers you came with, for what’s needed, are inflated. How did you come up with that? How did you prevent all the people on your task force – police and fire fighters and so on – just from giving pie in the sky wish lists?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, they did. We worked with them. Senator Rudman used to work on the Appropriations Committee. He knows how to ask the tough questions. The fire associations gave us requests for $85 billion. We worked it with them, and we went through and we knocked it down and knocked down to 30-something billion dollars. The number doesn’t include any number for police departments.

And we’re firing 80,000 police around the country. It’s hard to believe this. But in an era of terrorist threat, 80,000 police around the country are being given their pink slips. We don’t include any money for that in this. We really low-balled the number.

MARGARET WARNER: So the billions that have been spent, has it just been not enough or has it also not been spent wisely in your view?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Well, some of it has been spent wisely. And anyone who goes to an American airport today and thinks back to prior to September 11 recognizes that here the Congress and the administration said, “Aha! This is what happened. We can’t let this happen again.” And billions have been spent on airport security. Some would say maybe too much has been spent. I would not make that statement because you have to study the whole panorama of security needs. Remember, there are many other things needed: Port security, also sorts of public health issues that are beyond the scope of some of this particular report.

But when you look at what has been spent and you talk to the fire chiefs and the police chiefs and the heads of large metropolitan hospitals and small hospitals and small organizations, they tell you unequivocally, we just haven’t seen enough funds down here to get the basics.

And, as I’ve said repeatedly, if you ask me what are the priorities? These are Warren Rudman’s priorities – Dick may have his own – I would say that inter-operability of communications equipment and protective gear and diagnostic gear for chemical or bio attacks is absolutely essential. We ought to get on with this. And, if you want to say, fine, we’ll make a cut, the 100 largest metropolitan areas in America will make sure they get it first, so be it. I mean, let’s take the politics out of it.

MARGARET WARNER: What would your priorities be?

RICHARD CLARKE: I think those priorities are essentially right. Communications, 911 systems that are secure and reliable, inter-operable, secure radios, and hospitals that can take large numbers of contaminated people.

But the problem is, Margaret, we don’t have a set of standards. So to answer your question it’s impossible at this point because we don’t know what every city has done. We don’t know what the minimal essential capability is for a city of a million people, for a city of five million people. That’s what we need: a minimum essential capability statement and then we can judge how fast we’re going to get there.

MARGARET WARNER: And you think that Department of Homeland Security could organize this with the folks in place in the states and local communities?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: They are doing it now. They have stated they are doing it and I have no doubt that they’re doing it. They’re doing something else that’s very interesting. Secretary Ridge testified that the current allocation system has to be looked at very carefully. You can’t just do it on a per- state basis. You have to look at a lot of other factors. They’re doing a lot of things right. I wish they wouldn’t be quite so defensive about this report.

RICHARD CLARKE: They just need to do it faster.

MARGARET WARNER: But that brings up the role of the Congress, and what you all are suggesting is that Congress come up with this national priorities list and sort of direct all of this.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: That it mandate it, not that it does it itself. It ought to be mandated and that there are a number of federal agencies that are part of the mandate: DHS, Health and Human Services and possibly DOD in some areas. That could be done in this government in a relatively short period of time.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think of the prospects of that happening?

RICHARD CLARKE: Oh, I think the Congress is going to require it because the congressmen and senators are hearing from the governors and the mayors and the fire chiefs and the police chiefs and the hospital administrators that they’re not getting what they need to do the job, and the attack could come tomorrow.

MARGARET WARNER: But what you’re saying is that if the federal government had to pick up the whole extra $98 billion over five years, that essentially they’d have to quintuple their spending from $5 billion a year to $25 billion. How likely do you think that is at the time of $400 billion deficits and the ongoing conflict in Iraq and so on?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Margaret it probably isn’t likely, which is all the more reason that we need a plan, we need priorities, we need distribution formulas so we can reduce the highest risk areas with the best solutions that we have.

But I’ll say this to you: you know, having been in elective office, if there were to be a bio or chemical attack or a radiological attack in a major metropolitan city with the kind of unspeakable harm that would come to American citizens and there was no real way to deal with it, in my view, it would be a political upheaval in this country. People would not accept that.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Clarke, do you share Senator Rudman’s view that another horrific attack is all but inevitable.

RICHARD CLARKE: I think it is. And right now we’re putting our troops on the front line here at home without the protective gear, without the training without the equipment they need. We’d never do that in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Richard Clarke, Warren Rudman, thank you both.