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CIAO DATE: 05/01

Are We Prepared for Terrorism Using Weapons of Mass Destruction? Government's Half Measures

Eric R. Taylor

December 2000

Cato Institute

Executive Summary

In 1996 the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Act on domestic preparedness for terrorism using weapons of mass destruction. That law directs various departments and agencies of the federal government to make available to state and local governments training and equipment to respond to acts of terrorism involving the use of radiological, biological, and chemical weapons. The program—costing tens of billions of dollars per year—seeks to train local law enforcement, fire, medical, and other emergency response personnel to deal with such an attack against the American public.

According to the chairman of a national panel on terrorism, however, the United States lacks a clear plan for meeting the needs of its citizens in the event of a terrorist attack, and the hodgepodge of local and federal agencies makes it unclear who is in charge of the existing program.

The federal government originally decided whom to train and configured the training program. In so doing, it did not consider the fact that many local communities cooperate under mutual assistance agreements. Furthermore, under the current program, personnel in more than 50 percent of the major U.S. population centers will remain untrained and unprepared for any future nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) attack.

The most significant shortcoming of the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici law is the complete lack of any educational program to prepare the public for an NBC attack. Although the public is the ultimate target of any terrorist attack, average citizens are left ignorant of the fundamentals of preparedness that even the lowest private in the U.S. Army is taught for survival. The lack of any credible public education program in matters of awareness and response violates many entrenched principles of emergency management.

Full Text of Policy Analysis No. 387 (PDF, 19 pgs, 282 Kb)