Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, and USNORTHCOM, the United States Northern Command, invited WND staff reporter Jerome R. Corsi to visit Peterson Air Force base to observe Day Three of the NORAD-USNORTHCOM exercise Vigilant Shield 2008.

Corsi was the first outside news reporter allowed inside the Joint Interagency Coordination Group, or JIACG, to observe command center operations during a real-time national training exercise.

This article is the first of a six-part, exclusive WND series.

Joint Interagency Coordination Group responds to simulated attacks

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – A dirty bomb explodes in Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific.

A few hours later, two more dirty bombs detonate, this time on the continental United States.

One bomb goes off at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, killing an unknown number of people and spreading radiation throughout the airport.

Almost simultaneously, a dirty bomb goes off in Portland, Ore., detonated on the Steel Bridge, one of the city’s main arteries across the Willamette River to the downtown area.

Within minutes, the news media broadcast these disasters to the world.

Is the U.S. facing another 9/11, this time with dirty bombs set off by another wave of Islamic terrorists?

How many more dirty bombs are set to go off, and where?

As much as the scenario may sound like the screenplay of a Hollywood thriller, these terrorists events were being simulated as part of a national training exercise conducted by NORAD and USNORTHCOM in October.

Named Vigilant Shield 2008, or VS08, the exercise was also a “top officials exercise,” code-named TOPOFF4.


As a top officials’ exercise, this year’s Vigilant Shield included a week of intensive training involving many top officials of the U.S. government, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state and local government officials in Arizona and Oregon, the territory of Guam, U.S. Pacific Command, the military combatant command responsible for the Pacific (including Guam) and dozens of other agencies.

According to Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of NORAD and USNORTHCOM, the exercise was designed to stress USNORTHCOM’s ability to integrate and assist state and local responders in the event of a terrorist attack involving radiological dispersal devices, or RDDs, known as dirty bombs.

Within the NORAD-USNORTHCOM headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs is the command center heart of VS08/TOPOFF4, an inner, windowless room, where some 50 to 60 players from a myriad of federal agencies sit before computer screens and communicate via teleconference with remote players in Washington, D.C., as well as Guam, Arizona and Oregon.

Military and civilian federal players meet in this room every morning at 0900 hours to begin the information-sharing that is central to the operation of the command group known as the Joint Interagency Coordination, or JIACG.

“Interagency” was the applicable buzz word for the JIACG’s activity as the 9:30 a.m. meeting began with a situation analysis posted on a large flat screen at the front of the room for group review and follow-up action.

Mal Johnson, the day-shift chief of the JIACG “battle cell” known as the Interagency Coordination Group, or ICG, sat comfortably at his computer at the head of the central table in the room. He proudly wore a golf shirt bearing a tyrannosaurus rex emblem copied from the Michael Crichton novel, with name changed from “Jurassic Park” to “JIACG Park.”

Sitting around the room with Johnson are “resident reps” – those 40 or so non-Department of Defense agencies that have assigned permanent members to the JIACG.

Referencing the “virtual reps,” the dozens of agencies in Washington, Denver and around the country that participate in the JIACG from a distance, Johnson told WND, “With everybody interacting right here in real time, we can advise the USNORTHCOM commander where we might need to go, where the interagency might need help.”

“This is a win-win situation,” he stressed.

In Day Two of the exercise, the JIACG is working hard to get accurate casualty statistics and to evaluate the radiological fall-our risk from the dirty bombs.

Is Sky Harbor Airport closed? How about the Steel Bridge in Portland? Are Phoenix and Denver shut down?

“Our focus in the JIACG is what’s happening right now, today,” Johnson explains, “but not only what’s happening today, but what’s happening tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and the week after tomorrow, so that we can get ahead of the power curve. We are all viewing the same data and asking questions. Quite frankly, this helps bring the interagency together and be more efficient and effective.”

Looking around the room, WND surveyed the following “resident” federal agencies represented in the JIACG at 9:30 hours on Day Two of VS08/TOPOFF4:

  • DHS – Department of Homeland Security

  • CBP – Customs and Border Protection

  • Federal Emergency Management Agency

  • Transportation Security Agency

  • U.S. Coast Guard

  • Director, National Intelligence

  • Central Intelligence Agency

  • Department of State

  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

  • U.S. Geological Survey

  • U.S. Public Health Service

  • Federal Aviation Administration

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation

  • Department of Energy

In addition, the following “contingency representatives” were in the room as interagency partners:

  • Federal Air Marshals

  • Department of Interior

  • Department of Health and Human Services

  • National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency

  • Environmental Protection Agency

  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  • U.S. Department of Agriculture

Communicating remotely by teleconference are state and local government officials designated by the governors of Oregon, Arizona and Guam, who have been assigned to lead the emergency response. Also in the conference are field observers the federal agencies have on site.

In a separate, windowless command room full of computer terminals and telecommunications equipment resides the “White Cell,” the civilian and military planners who form the brain of the exercise.

The White Cell’s job is to keep the exercise moving by monitoring game play and entering new input.

“Earlier in the week, we entered into the exercise a simulated aircraft crash,” explained Steve Zakaluk, a civilian within NORAD-USNORTHCOM at the center of directing the White Cell’s activity. “It turned out to be a civilian airliner. It was not terrorist related, but it was smoke in the cockpit and they crashed back into Ted Stevens Airport up in Alaska, back in Anchorage.”

Entering unrelated events into the exercise demands that players sort out facts and determine if the incident is related or unrelated to the emergency response to the RDD detonations that the exercise is focused on managing.

“So, the airplane crash involved a commercial plane, with 90-some passengers on board, completely unrelated,” Zakaluk explained, “but that’s part of the thing which the players need to be able to do – to sort out the things that are extraneous to the major problem, because that’s realistic. Other things will be happening in the real world.”

Zakaluk continued, “Up in Alaska, our Joint Task Force Alaska working with the FBI and local people in the airport, state and other local agencies, worked through the civilian airplane problem, and we moved on with the exercise.”

Referring to a computer slide that described the exercise, Zakaluk went through the bullet points that described other incidents scripted into the exercise.

“The second bullet is an operational threat involving a maritime response involving a ‘vessel of interest,’ a cargo ship sailing under a Panamanian flag,” he explained. “The intelligence coming into the exercise connected the possibility of people on that ship, or perhaps material on that ship, that might be related to the radioactive material that had been used in the RDDs. So they had to connect the dots, exactly like a jig-saw puzzle.”

Zakaluk continued, “There’s a procedure whereby the government agencies determine whether it’s a military problem or a civilian law enforcement problem. That vessel is being successfully tracked now by the Navy and the Coast Guard as it approaches Los Angeles/Long Beach harbor. Throughout the course of the week, the JIACG will take certain actions to determine whether or not it’s a threat.”

Also scripted to occur during the week-long exercise was a foreign country announcement of a space launch.

“Cheyenne Mountain tracked the space launch for us,” Zakaluk clarified, “and NORAD provided assessments both to the JIACG and to Strategic Command in Omaha.”

Strategic Command, or USSTRATCOM, is another of the nine U.S. unified commands under the Department of Defense.

Headquartered at Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska, USSTRATCOM is the lead combatant command responsible for DOD response combating weapons of mass destruction.

“Commander Renuart also dispatched a Commander’s Assignment Element to fly out to Arizona and one to go out to Oregon, to see in person what was going on,” Zakaluk noted. “Guam is not in our area. It’s handled by Admiral Keating and Pacific Command, and it was Admiral Keating’s decision to send out a Commander’s (Assignment Assessment) Element to be on scene.”

Keating preceded Renuart as commander of NORAD-USNORTHCOM.

“A Commander’s Assignment (Assessment) Element is a small unit involving six or eight people who go out and meet with the governor, meet with the emergency operations people, and they try to gain information in anticipation of perhaps requirements coming to DOD,” Zakaluk explained.

USNORTHCOM was established Oct. 1, 2002, to provide a military combatant command tasked with commanding and controlling Department of Defense homeland defense efforts and coordinating defense response of civil authorities.

NORAD is a bi-national U.S. and Canadian organization charged with the missions of maritime warning, aerospace warning and aerospace control for North America.

Zakaluk headed a group of exercise scenario managers at Peterson Air Force Base who were working in conjunction with a staff at the Joint War Fighting Center of the Joint Forces Command, or USJFCOM), headquartered in Norfolk, Va.

USJFCOM is another of the Department of Defense’s nine combatant commands, with a mission to provide “mission-ready, joint-capable forces” as required by the Secretary of Defense.

In June, WND published an exclusive two-part interview with Col. Tom Muir, U.S. Army, deputy operations officer for Command Center Operations for NORAD and USNORTHCOM, detailing the distinctions between the NORAD command facilities housed in Cheyenne Mountain and the new NORAD-USNORTHCOM headquarters facilities at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

Related special offer:

Get Corsi’s latest book, autographed: “The Late Great USA: The Coming Merger with Mexico and Canada”

Previous stories:

Air Force probes nuke missile incident

Air Force ordered to stand-down tomorrow

Military positioned to launch action – here

Previous columns:

Norad’s new home, Part 2

Norad’s new home

Feds prepping for ‘continuity’ hub?

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.