Justice Department ‘totally unprepared’ for WMD attack, report finds

The Justice Department is not prepared to ensure public safety in the aftermath of an attack using weapons of mass destruction, the agency’s inspector general said Tuesday in the latest warning about the government’s readiness for a catastrophic terrorist event.

The Justice Department is supposed to coordinate federal law enforcement activities after a nuclear, biological or chemical attack and take over if the incident overwhelms state and local police, the report said.

“We are totally unprepared,” an unidentified Justice Department official is quoted as saying in the report by the inspector general, the agency’s internal watchdog. “Right now, being totally effective would never happen. Everybody would be winging it.”

The report praised the FBI for meeting planning requirements, but said the Justice Department as a whole and its other component law enforcement agencies had not. That includes the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is supposed to take the lead on public safety after an attack.

In written responses included in the report, Justice Department officials agreed that “the fundamental conclusion of the report is sound” and promised action to address the shortcomings.

The report represents the latest in a series of assessments criticizing the government for inadequate planning for WMD attacks. In January, a bipartisan commission gave the Obama administration and Congress a grade “F” on preparedness for a biological attack. The administration responded with measures to speed up delivery of drugs in the event of an incident.

In 2008, another commission found deficiencies “in all three pillars of the national strategy to combat WMD: prevention, protection and response.” That commission added that strategies dating to 2002 had not been fully implemented.

“The presidential requirements have been ignored,” said Paul McHale, a former Democratic lawmaker from Pennsylvania who also served as an assistant secretary of Defense under former President George W. Bush. “There is a sense of complacency that has settled in nearly a decade after Sept. 11.”

The Department of Homeland Security is supposed to be in charge in the event of a WMD attack, and every major government agency has an assigned role.

Each federal agency is supposed to develop plans to respond to eight scenarios representing the gravest dangers faced by the U.S., including attacks with nuclear, radiological, biological or chemical weapons; a cyber attack; and pandemic influenza.

Tuesday’s report concluded that no one at the Justice Department had responsibility for the central oversight or management of WMD incident response, and that the department had not updated its policies to reflect recent national policies for responding to such an incident.

“They just don’t see the WMD scenario as most likely,” said Randall Larsen, who was executive director of the now-defunct Commission for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which gave the government’s bioterrorism planning a failing grade in January.

The FBI provides training to its staff on responding to a WMD incident and regularly conducts and participates in response exercises, the report said. But no other Justice Department law enforcement component does so, the report said.