WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., heard testimony from federal officials Thursday who all conceded that while gains have been made since September 11, 2001, the federal government is not as prepared as it should be to respond to the medical and mass care challenges that would result from a terrorist nuclear attack on a major American city.
The testimony came at the Committee’s fifth hearing in a series examining the nation’s preparedness to mount an effective response to a terrorist nuclear attack. The next hearing in the series will focus on the architecture being developed to prevent entry of a nuclear weapon across U.S. borders.
“While working to prevent such an attack is and will continue to be our top priority, we know that the risk is real and we cannot act as if can be fully eliminated,” Lieberman said. “A nuclear attack on our homeland would be sudden and swift – devastating and deadly, and a failure to develop and test a comprehensive plan for dealing with the aftermath would magnify its impact. The testimony tells me there is a lot going on but we are not where we ought to be or need to be.”
Collins said: Our first priority should be to prevent terrorists from acquiring and using an improvised nuclear device, but if those efforts fail, our nation must ensure that our federal, State and local response plans for such an attack are built into the all-hazards orientation that underlies the National Response Framework. Our defenses must be robust, active, and adaptable to the constantly evolving threats our nation faces. If such a disastrous attack should occur, a well-planned and effective response by federal agencies will be critical to augment the work of state and local governments, as well as non-profit and private-sector organizations.”
Witnesses from the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services testified that they are all working to develop more medical surge teams, better decontamination capabilities; and the means to communicate with the public particularly about whether to shelter in place or evacuate.
But each witness also said the federal government has a long way to go before it is as prepared as it needs to be. Each cited the need to improve coordination and communications among local, state, and federal officials. Witnesses also cited a need for regional planning. And another said the federal government needs to move from strategic planning to operational reality.
Paul McHale, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs at DoD, said that the department now regards civil support to the homeland during a catastrophe as a duty equal to DoD’s national security duties. Lieberman is drafting legislation to ensure that civil support is considered a statutory requirement for the Department of Defense.
Hearing witnesses in addition to McHale were Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator R. David Paulison; Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Department of Health and Human Services, W. Craig Vanderwagen; and James H. Schwartz, Chief of the Arlington County Fire Department.