WASHINGTON -- Until Timothy McVeigh detonated a 5,000-pound truck bomb in Oklahoma City in 1995, most Americans probably believed terrorist attacks only happened on foreign soil.
Yes, there'd been an earlier blast at New York's World Trade Center in 1993, but since no one was killed, it didn't hit home with the same impact. The brutal deaths of 168 innocent men, women and children at Oklahoma City woke up America.
Over the past five years, the United States has had to face the increasing danger posed by terrorists possessing weapons of mass destruction. Recent revelations about chemical and biological weapons arsenals in Iraq and the former Soviet Union have sent a clear wake up call. A call, Pam Berkowsky, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's assistant for civil support, says the American public is beginning to hear.
In the event that terrorists strike, DoD is considering ways to best support civil authorities in the event of terrorist attacks involving nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. "Looking at history, there is no weapon that has ever been developed that man has failed to use," Berkowsky said
Contrary to some critics' view that defense officials and the media have hyped the threat, she said, DoD and the media share a responsibility for educating the public, "but we must address it in a balanced and responsible manner.
"John Q. Public may not be having nightmares about biological terrorism, but the national command authority must be focused on those things that are a high risk to a large number of the population," she said. Berkowsky is the Pentagon's civil support liaison to the National Security Council and other federal agencies.
In the past year, she noted, U.S. authorities responded to more than 200 threats involving chemical-biological agents such as anthrax that turned out to be hoaxes. However, there have been credible threats, she said, and they're not limited to state-sponsored terrorists.
"We've seen loners, free-lancers and militia organizations trying to get their hands on bubonic plague and other toxins. The technology is out there; it's on the Internet," she stressed. "It's in people's minds, and many people have the capability to do these things."
America's undisputed military might has forced potential adversaries to employ terrorist tactics, Berkowsky said. "Because of the strength we've demonstrated on the battlefield, adversaries are going to attempt to strike at our perceived soft underbelly, which is our domestic population," she said.
This fact has led to what Berkowsky termed "evolutionary initiatives" within the Defense Department. Pentagon leaders recently adjusted the military command structure to better support federal, state and local government agencies during incidents involving weapons of mass destruction. Military and civilian authorities have begun to share expertise and to link resources to better respond to a range of possible scenarios.
"It's difficult to talk about specific scenarios," she pointed out. "You walk a fine line in not wanting to give ideas to terrorists and potential adversaries about the kinds of things that you're considering.
"Suffice it to say that we are necessarily thinking about biological scenarios -- using both infectious and noninfectious agents -- and radiological and chemical scenarios," Berkowsky said. She added that U.S. government officials, led by the Department of Agriculture, are focusing on "agro-terrorism," where an adversary attacks the nation's food and water supply.
"We are contemplating possibilities in each of these arenas and what we, as a department, need to do to plan and prepare for each," she said.
Up until 1995, the American public generally seemed to accept terrorism as a common occurrence -- in other countries. Kidnappings, hijackings, machine gun slayings, car bombs and suicide bombers had taken their toll on the world stage for years. With a few exceptions -- the 1993 bombing at New York's World Trade Center, the 1980 blast at the Statue of Liberty and the 1975 blast at La Guardia Airport -- terrorist attacks happened outside the United States.
But then events occurred that changed the magnitude of the threat when terrorists introducing a new type of weapon in their arsenal. In March 1995, Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese religious cult, unleashed Sarin gas in Tokyo's subway, killing 12 and injuring more than 5,000.
Berkowsky said the attack spotlighted the fact that terrorists, in this case religious extremists, could get their hands on weapons of mass destruction and had the will to use them. Civil authorities' problems are magnified even further, she said, because some of these weapons are relatively easy to make and deliver.
April 19, 1995, just a month after the Tokyo crisis, McVeigh and his cronies ripped open America's heartland by destroying the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The bomb blast forever shattered the nation's sense of immunity.
In June 1996, 19 American service members died at the hands of foreign terrorists who exploded an estimated 20,000- pound truck bomb at Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Hundreds more were injured in the blast that sheared off the face of the high-rise barracks. As a result, military officials dramatically beefed up force protection measures worldwide.
After Tokyo, Oklahoma City and Khobar Towers, no one at home or abroad could ignore the dire threat of terrorism. Like it or not, it was now clear that the United States was vulnerable -- but whose job was it to counter the threat?
Traditionally, Berkowsky said, people see the active duty forces deployed abroad for foreign contingencies and supported by the National Guard and Reserve. In the case of domestic terrorism, the National Guard and Reservists would be on the front lines, supported by the active duty components. The military has unique technical and operational capabilities to help civil authorities deal with the threat, she said.
"Whether it be because of our experience in the Gulf or the threat on the Korean Peninsula, DoD has long-standing experience with a variety of equipment and technology," she said. "We also have a lot of technical experts in our chemical and biological defense labs."
DoD also has large-scale logistics, transportation and communications assets. "The military is really the only organization that has the ability to get tents for 10,000 people from Point A to Point B," Berkowsky said.
To assist local law enforcement and emergency response officials, Congress directed DoD to share its expertise and resources. DoD responded with its Domestic Preparedness Program in 1996, implemented by the Army, to train local officials, firefighters, police and emergency medical teams and other "first responders" in 120 metropolitan areas.
To date, Berkowsky said, defense officials have trained more than 20,000 first responders in more than 75 cities. DoD is preparing to turn this program over to the Department of Justice, which now shares responsibility for training civilian authorities with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Next, DoD officials created a new command structure to support domestic defense. Because DoD's primary mission is war fighting outside the continental United States, Berkowsky said, the department was not organized in a way to best consolidate its assets to support national requirements at home.
In April 1999, Cohen and Deputy Secretary John J. Hamre asked Berkowsky to look at this problem at the policy level. The defense leaders sought to coordinate and integrate DoD's civil support efforts and enable the department to speak with one voice.
"The secretary and the deputy secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president all had the same vision at about the same time that civil support is an absolutely critical element that the government needed to focus on," she said.
As a result, DoD's 1999 Unified Command Plan set up a new unit at the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va. The Joint Task Force for Civil Support was formed as the command element responsible for planning and preparing for domestic contingencies involving weapons of mass destruction. Brig. Gen. Bruce M. Lawlor, an Army National Guardsman from Vermont, commands the task force.
In the past, DoD's Directorate of Military Support, known as DOMS, under the Army Secretary as executive agent, coordinated DoD's support in times of national emergencies. Upon request, active duty and reserve personnel pitched in during fires, floods, and hurricanes. In considering the terrorist threat and the possibility of mass casualties, Berkowsky said, DoD officials sought a new approach.
"Traditionally," she said, "military officials waited until they had requests from other federal agencies for this kind of unit or this kind of support. But for the kinds of contingencies that we were contemplating, we really needed to be a little bit more proactive.
"We needed to think more holistically about the kinds of assets DoD could bring to bear," she continued. DoD wanted to ensure that first responders understood the unique capabilities DoD has to offer and that DoD officials prepared contingency plans.
"If you look at the case of the L.A. riots, for example," Berkowsky said, "you had a general officer who was plucked to lead the joint task force out there because he was geographically desirable, not because he had ever prepared for a domestic contingency requiring troops in the streets. He was planning for some contingency in the Pacific."
While the Directorate of Military Support will continue to respond to fires, floods and other natural disasters, Berkowsky said, Lawlor's civil support task force would only become involved in contingencies where state and local capabilities are absolutely overwhelmed.
Berkowsky said DoD's current efforts are no longer aimed solely at deterring and preventing crises. "We're presuming that we will have some events, and therefore, we need to think about managing the consequences," she said. "If requested by the president or by civil authorities, we as a department have a tremendous contribution to make domestically.
"If something were to happen," she said, "the task force would deploy and coordinate the DoD assets that would flow in support of the FBI or the Federal Emergency Management Agency." DoD would not be in charge -- the military would play a supporting role, she emphasized.
DoD has set up 10 National Guard teams to rapidly deploy to contingency sites to assist local authorities. The teams remain state assets until they are federalized, Berkowsky noted. At first labeled Rapid Assessment and Initial Detection or "RAID" teams, DoD officials recently changed the name to "Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams."
"The first 10 teams are going to be located in the 10 FEMA regions around the country," Berkowsky said. "They will have special communications gear that will help promote interoperability among firefighters, the police and other first responders."
Defense officials expect these civil support teams to be fully trained and certified by spring 2000. DoD is applying $30 million of the additional funds provided by Congress in fiscal 2000 to set up 17 more teams. Ultimately, all 27 teams will support the entire U.S. population.
Initially, defense officials dubbed the overall program "homeland defense," then acknowledge this could create a misperception of an implied military takeover, Berkowsky said. Defense officials recently changed the program name to "civil support" which "conveys much more of the role that we legitimately have in this regard," she said.
Civil libertarians criticized the civil support initiative, Berkowsky pointed out. She said they feared DoD "was out to take over" and that the military would trample people's civil liberties, as depicted in such movies as 1999's "The Siege." In that suspense thriller, a terrorist threat in New York City leads an overzealous military commander to enforce martial law and to forcibly and indiscriminately detain Arab Americans as suspects.
DoD's objective is "quite to the contrary" of this fictionalized view, Berkowsky stressed. "Putting a National Guardsman in charge of this unit is our way of demonstrating an exquisite attention to civil liberties and an attempt to protect them. This builds a bridge to the civilian community -- civil authorities can see there is an unequivocal chain up to the secretary of defense."
DoD leaders wanted to ensure the task force commander understood the national chain of command and was completely aware of the legal constraints of operating in U.S. territory, she said. Under the Posse Comitatus Act, for instance, military personnel are prohibited from being used for law enforcement within the United States, Berkowsky noted.
DoD officials also wanted to ensure the commander was a person familiar and comfortable with supporting FBI and FEMA counterparts, as well as state and local authorities.
"When we first started down this path, it seemed the military was the only game in town, but first responders have made substantial progress over the last couple of years," Berkowsky said. "Civilian authorities and other federal departments have expanded their capabilities and are making a robust effort to determine what each brings to the table.
"We have a responsibility as government officials to be wise stewards of the money we've been given," she continued. "We must constantly look to ensure our capabilities are not duplicative or overlapping of those in any other agency or department."
Berkowsky said she believes the federal government's overall goal should be to provide first responders with as much capability as possible during those first critical minutes, hours and days after an incident.
"By giving them the training and equipment they need and
helping them develop their capabilities, we reduce the
likelihood that DoD and other agencies would be called in
to assist," she said. "Though, certainly, I have no doubt
that we would be there if requested."