A different kind of color-coded alert?

An accidental disclosure from the Homeland Security Department reveals just how unprepared we still are for another terrorist attack.

By Page Rockwell
Published March 17, 2005 4:15PM (EST)

The Department of Homeland Security isn't doing much to improve Americans' feelings of safety this week. The New York Times reported Wednesday that a draft of one of the Homeland Security department's terrorist-attack planning documents had been accidentally posted on a Hawaii state government website. The document, entitled National Planning Scenarios, projects the likely death tolls and economic fallout for twelve types of major disasters, including the nuking of a major city, the release of Sarin nerve gas in office buildings, and the spread of pneumonic plague in airport bathrooms. It's grim stuff-- the Times noted that the planning scenarios read like "a doomsday plan," complete with guesses as to how terrorists might obtain and distribute deadly chemicals and suggestions for the collection of dead bodies.

Not surprisingly, the report "scared the daylights out of people," according to Campbell County, Wyoming fire chief Gary Scott, who added that the report was obviously for government use and not useful as a checklist for civilians. Officials were quick to clarify that the Homeland Security department did not intend to scare the public, and emphasized that the planning scenarios are only hypothetical: "The Federal Bureau of Investigation is unaware of any credible intelligence that indicates that such an attack is being planned." (Still, it's hard to feel reassured by a security department that has just inadvertently leaked its own sensitive emergency planning documents.)

But the document is also scary because of what it implies: These are disasters we're not currently equipped to deal with. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff distinguished between emergencies for which there are already "well developed and tested response plans," like airline hijackings, and the disasters listed in the document, for which response plans need to be developed. The list of scenarios still needs to get White House approval before state and local governments will be asked to identify gaps in their emergency plans, and before the federal government can reallocate funding to focus on potentially vulnerable sites.

By some accounts the Homeland Security Department remains an organizational mess, and given the pace of disaster-preparedness planning -- the scenarios document itself has been under construction since 2003 -- it seems unlikely that effective emergency plans for all scenarios will be in place anytime soon.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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