At a time of growing fear of terrorism within the United States' 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 should deterrence fail. A copy of the report was obtained by The New York Times.
The urgent appeal for a restructuring of the nation's anti-terrorism efforts, and the deep frus-tra-tion expressed at the two-day closed meeting last month, took even some longtime federal officials by surprise. Both followed ambitious anti-terrorism 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 Hicks, Atlanta's domestic preparedness coordinator, whose city had 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."