6 September 1998
By JUDITH MILLER
At a time of growing fear of terrorism within America's borders, senior state and local officials say the Federal Government still has no coherent system for deterring or responding to it.
More than 200 officials from across the country who met in Washington late last month to discuss emergency preparedness urged the Clinton Administration to put a single Government agency in charge of developing a new national plan within six months.
The current system of Federal programs to counter attacks on American soil, especially those involving chemical or biological weapons and other arms of mass destruction, is not only often duplicative but also, the officials said, frequently chaotic, confusing and overly bureaucratic.
An eight-page summary of the group's assessment was given to Attorney General Janet Reno by the Justice Department's Office for State and Local Preparedness Support, which was created in May to help cities and states better prepare for terrorism and deal with its consequences. The internal summary was approved by C. H. Straub 2d, a veteran official of the department who heads the preparedness office and convened the session to gather opinions from the state officials. The New York Times obtained a copy.
An official in Straub's office said that Ms. Reno and other senior Justice Department officials met on Friday with Richard A. Clarke, President Clinton's national coordinator for antiterrorism programs, to discuss the complaints.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, added that those complaints "support prior findings of earlier, smaller-scale needs-assessment efforts and will go a long way toward shaping this office's priorities."
The urgent appeal for a restructuring of the nation's antiterrorism efforts, and the deep frustration expressed at the two-day closed meeting last month, took even some longtime Federal officials by surprise. Both followed ambitious antiterrorism efforts by the Administration and the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years on training, infrastructure protection, new equipment, and intelligence gathering and sharing.
For all of that, said Bernard R. Hicks, Atlanta's domestic preparedness coordinator, whose city got experience with terrorism in the bombing at the Olympics two years ago, "even we often don't know who to talk to at the Federal level."
Bob Canfield, an official with the Los Angeles emergency preparedness division, agreed. "The Federal Government thinks it's focused," he said, "but we see the effort as fragmented."
Seeking to counter what experts warn is a growing threat, Clinton asked Congress in June to add about $300 million to the 1999 Federal budget to better protect Americans from germ and chemical attack. The budget request was just a part of a sweeping reorganization that the President introduced in a speech to graduating midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy. Among other things, he also appointed Mr. Clarke national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection and counterterrorism within the White House, to "bring the full force of all our resources to bear swiftly and effectively."
This Presidential directive, and an earlier one, also designated "lead agencies" to "identify a program plan with goals and specific milestones." While one of the directives gives a chief antiterrorism role to the Justice Department, and particularly to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the elaborate system mandated by the President also divides the task into 10 categories -- apprehension and prosecution, international cooperation and critical infrastructure, for example -- and assigns each to one of the lead agencies.
Mr. Clarke's job is to develop initiatives, coordinate policy among those agencies and iron out disputes. But only half the state and local officials on one panel at the Washington meeting said they knew that Clinton had revamped the counterterrorism system, and fewer than half had ever heard of Mr. Clarke.
Among the things that befuddle and infuriate local officials are the proliferation of counterterrorism units and the resulting explosion in acronyms and alphabet soup: There are the Army's CBDCOM, or Chemical, Biological Defense Command; the Marines' C.B.I.R.F., or Chemical, Biological Incident Response Force; DEST, the F.B.I.-managed interagency Domestic Emergency Support Team; FEST, the State's Department's Federal Emergency Support Team; NEST, the Energy Department's Nuclear Emergency Support Team, and M.M.S.T., the Metropolitan Medical Strike Teams of the Department of Health and Human Services.
"What we don't need," said Peter S. Beering, terrorism preparedness coordinator in Indianapolis, "is a telephone-book-sized directory of emergency Federal services. We need a one-page guide with a person at the end of the line who speaks not jargon but English."
An official in Mr. Clarke's office acknowledged the prevailing confusion, and added, "We're still trying to build a consensus on the way in which we systematize training, equipping and emergency assistance for states and localities."
The official said one agency, not yet designated, would be "reaching out systematically to states and localities to insure that they all know who to call."
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company