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WASHINGTON – When authorities tried to arrest a terrorist discovered unloading an improvised nuclear weapon in the port of Charleston, S.C., the bomb was detonated, killing 10,000, injuring 30,000 and exposing as many as 100,000 to high levels of radiation.
That was the scenario at the center of a nuclear terrorism drill, completed this week, one involving thousands of civilians, military personnel and local and federal officials told Inside Defense.
“Sudden Respond 05” was led by Virginia’s Fort Monroe-based Joint Task Force-Civil Support and was designed to simulate a nuclear terrorist attack that the highest U.S. officials, including President Bush, have said is the No. 1 threat facing the nation.
The drill, one of many like it scheduled around the country, was not designed to stop a nuclear terrorist attack but to deal with its devastating aftermath. The exercises took place from Aug. 15 through Aug. 19. Drills in other parts of the country will focus on 15 other scenarios involving the detonation of terrorist weapons of mass destruction.
In this case, the device was a 10-kiloton bomb, said Tom Sobieski, deputy for training and exercises at Joint Task Force-Civil Support, in an interview with InsideDefense.
For two weeks prior to the drill, the task force, which spearheads the Defense Department’s support for civil authorities leading the response, conducted “in-depth computer modeling” analysis to predict the damage to the southern port, including its infrastructure, facilities, communications as well as how the radioactive plume might move through the atmosphere.
Organizers say the nuclear drills should not frighten civilians but instead encourage them to learn how to protect themselves if such an attack – which some officials have referred to as inevitable – should occur.
“What we’re doing is validating what we call our ‘nuclear playbook’ – our operating procedures for how we would respond to a nuclear scenario,” Sobieski told Inside Defense.
The task force, part of the U.S. Northern Command, which oversees the Defense Department’s domestic military activity, is composed of active, reserve and Guard members from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, as well as civilian personnel. It is commanded by a federalized National Guard general.
Army National Guard Maj. Gen. Bruce Davis, the task force commander, directed the Charleston drill, which included 164 members of his operation, dozens of role players who will represent other organizations the joint task force would work with, as well as representatives from South Carolina’s state government and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
While Charleston was selected as the target for the exercise, most of the activity took place at the task force’s Virginia headquarters.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Paul McHale in an interview last month said the Pentagon, in partnership with other federal departments, is contemplating “truly catastrophic” scenarios that go well beyond recent exercises designed to test the reaction of civilian and military forces to biological and chemical weapons attacks.
“With an unflinching eye, we are taking a realistic look at worse-case scenarios,” he told Inside Defense. “We have begun to consider in a very focused way not only mid-range consequence management requirements of the type that could be met by a combination of existing and military and civilian capabilities, but also truly catastrophic events that would go beyond the normal range of challenges reflected in our more recent exercises.”
Sudden Response 05 did not, however, attempt to deal with multiple coordinated attacks like those plotted by al-Qaida in its decade-long “American Hiroshima” scenario. Earlier this year, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz approved an “execute order” that directs the military to be prepared to respond to more than a single domestic attack involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapon.
Sobieski said that before the task force tackles multiple, simultaneous attacks it needs to iron out its procedures for dealing with a single attack.
“We need to make sure we have a playbook in place for responding to a singular event until we moved on to a much more complex problem,” he said.
The scenario for the attack was drawn from an approved list of disaster situations maintained by the Department of Homeland Security, Sobieski said.
Each member of the task force has a bag with contamination gear and another with 30 days of clothing and personal needs. They are never far from a telephone. Neither are about 3,450 military people around the country on 24-hour call for just this sort of disaster.
“We are specifically designed as a part of U.S. Northern Command to come in after an incident like this and assist local responders with saving lives, preventing further injuries and restoring critical life support,” said Maj. Gen. Bruce Davis. “There are those out there that have stated their intent to hurt us anyway they possibly can and to not take that serious and not be prepared would be folly,” Gen. Davis added.
As WND has reported, for more than 10 years, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida has planned to use nuclear weapons in a terrorist attack on the U.S. The plan is dubbed “American Hiroshima.” In fact, as first reported in Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin, captured al-Qaida operatives and documents suggest the weapons have already been smuggled into the country.
For continuing and complete coverage of Osama bin Laden’s “American Hiroshima” plans, subscribe to Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin, the premium, online, intelligence newsletter published by the founder of WND.