Combating Terrorism: Federal Response Teams Provide Varied Capabilities; Opportunities Remain to Improve Coordination

GAO-01-14 Published: Nov 30, 2000. Publicly Released: Jan 03, 2001.
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Eight federal agencies now have teams that can respond to a terrorist attack involving chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons. Each team varies in size, structure, geographical scope, and task. The teams do not duplicate one another. They have unique capabilities and functions, and many have experience dealing with different types of agents and weapons. The type of terrorist incident would determine which team would be most appropriate to respond. GAO found that federal agencies lack a coherent framework to develop and evaluate budget requirements for their response teams because there is no national strategy with clearly defined outcomes. To improve interagency cooperation, federal agencies have participated in several group activities. For example, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Interagency Steering Group, led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is identifying federal response teams that could respond to different terrorist scenarios. Federal, state, and local agencies have also participated in major field exercises that simulated urban terrorist acts. These efforts could go a long way toward improving the operational coordination of federal response teams.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Justice To guide resource investments for combating terrorism, the Attorney General should modify the Department of Justice's interagency plan on counterterrorism to cite desired outcomes that could be used to develop budget requirements for agencies and their respective response teams. This process should be coordinated as an interagency effort.
Closed – Implemented
The Department of Justice asserts that the current plan includes desired outcomes. GAO disagrees with the Department and believes what it cites as outcomes are outputs-agency activities rather than results the federal government is trying to achieve. GAO repeats this recommendation to the Attorney General in its latest report, "Combating Terrorism: Selected Challenges and Related Recommendations" (GAO-01-822). The National Strategy for Homeland Security, issued in July 2002, supersedes the Attorney General's Five-Year Plan as the interagency plan for combating terrorism domestically. This strategy does not include measurable outcomes, but calls for their development. Executive Order 13228, issued in October 2001, calls upon heads of executive departments and agencies to work with the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Director of the Office of Management and Budget to identify programs that contribute to the Administration's strategy for homeland security.
Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response To provide a sound analytical basis for developing appropriate federal consequence management responses, the Director, FEMA, should take steps to require that the Weapons of Mass Destruction Interagency Steering Group develop realistic scenarios involving chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear agents and weapons with experts in the scientific and intelligence communities.
Closed – Implemented
FEMA said that it will take steps to ensure that the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Interagency Steering Group works with relevant scientific and intelligence communities in developing WMD scenarios involving chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear agents. In June 2002, the President proposed that a new Department of Homeland Security take the lead for developing and conducting federal exercises to combat terrorism.
Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response To build upon the experience and lessons learned by the federal response teams from the May 2000 exercise, the Director, FEMA, should sponsor periodic national-level consequence management field exercises involving federal, state, and local governments. Such exercises should be conducted together with national-level crisis management field exercises.
Closed – Implemented
FEMA stated that it would support and sponsor periodic national consequence management field exercises to ensure better coordination among federal, state, and local response teams. Along these lines, GAO has made a similar recommendation in its recent report, "Combating Terrorism: Selected Challenges and Related Recommendations" (GAO-01-822).

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