National Preparedness Strategy, United States

National Preparedness Strategy, United States

Events of the 1990s, particularly the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the Oklahoma City attack two years later, revealed that the continental United States was far more vulnerable to terrorist attack than Americans had supposed. The federal government's response to these and other situations had been on an ad hoc basis, resulting in the establishment of response capabilities under various Cabinet-level departments. The result, in many cases, was disorganization and duplication of services. By 1999, leaders had recognized the need for a national preparedness strategy, and three years later, the General Accounting Office (GAO) established, in broad outlines, what such a strategy should entail.

The 1999 study: a searing critique. According to the results of a 1999 national vulnerability study, "The country's seeming inability to develop and implement a clear, comprehensive, and truly integrated national preparedness strategy means that the government and citizens was still seen as possibly incapable of responding effectively to a serious terrorist attack." The report came from an 18-member commission, chaired by Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III (R) and composed of retired military leaders, as well as figures from the medical, emergency planning, and intelligence communities.

Much of the commission's 67-page report, delivered to President William J. Clinton on December 15, was a critique of the existing system for terrorism and emergency response. Much of the dissatisfaction noted in the study came from state and local officials, who found that federal plans failed to take appropriate account of community needs. For example, much federal planning focused on the 220 largest cities in the nation, effectively leaving smaller communities to fend for themselves.

The 2002 study: a guide to effective partnership. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the administration of President George W. Bush commissioned the GAO to report on the needs and challenges associated with the formation of a cohesive national preparedness strategy. Patricia A. Dalton, strategic issues director for the GAO, delivered her report, Combating Terrorism: Enhancing Partnerships through a National Preparedness Strategy, on March 28, 2002.

As Dalton noted, the GAO had long called for a national terrorism preparedness strategy that would integrate federal, state, and local response capabilities. Such a strategy, according to GAO, should include definition and clarification of the roles and responsibilities of various entities; establishment of goals and performance measures; and thoughtful decision-making with regard to the tools that would best assist in implementing a national strategy.

An array of legislation and presidential directives addressed the national response to terrorism, including several bills introduced in Congress following the September 2001 attacks. Funding was in place, with $29.3 billion allocated for homeland security in the 2002 budget and $37.7 billion requested for 2003. What was most sorely lacking, Dalton's report indicated, was an overall plan, and with some 40 government agencies devoted to dealing with terrorism, there was bound to be a great deal of redundancy, waste, and inefficiency.

Attempting to deal with these problems, Attorney General Janet Reno had in December, 1998, presented a five-year Interagency Counterterrorism Crime and Technology Plan, but GAO found it lacking in a system for measuring outcomes. Additionally, Reno's plan failed to identify state and local government roles. "The emphasis," Dalton noted, "Needs to be on a national rather than a purely federal plan." Not only had local communities in many cases failed to receive adequate help from the federal government due to a confusion of response capabilities, but even those parts of the federal government officially involved in some aspect of emergency response were sometimes left out of decision-making on relevant matters.

To improve the situation, Dalton recommended the establishment of a one-stop "clearinghouse" for federal assistance to state and local response organizations. In order to develop a comprehensive response capability, her report indicated, it would be necessary to streamline the emergency-response apparatus. Additionally, an effective national preparedness strategy would encourage much greater cooperation among federal agencies, and between agencies at the federal, state, and local levels.



Dalton, Patricia A. Combating Terrorism: Enhancing Partnerships through a National Preparedness Strategy. Washington, D.C.: General Accounting Office, 2002.


Melton, R. H. "Panel Criticizes U.S. Anti-Terrorism Preparedness." Washington Post. (December 16, 1999): A6.


GAO (General Accounting Office, United States)
Radiological Emergency Response Plan, United States Federal
United States, Counter-terrorism Policy
World Trade Center, 1993 Terrorist Attack

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