When Oklahoma City’s new federal building opens in July 2003, the sparkling glass and steel facility will bear little resemblance to its predecessor. Stung by criticism after Timothy McVeigh unleashed his rage on the Murrah building, the federal government is replacing it with a safer structure as part of a $400 million program to overhaul security at 8,300 buildings across America.
As McVeigh was tried, convicted and sentenced to die for blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, thousands of changes were made to the nation’s federal offices, many of which will be reflected in the new Oklahoma City building. Windows on federal buildings will now receive a coating of Mylar on the inside to help prevent shattering in an explosion, and new construction is designed to prevent what experts call “pancake collapse,” a phenomenon in which building supports fall in on one another — as happened with the Murrah building.
Now, six years after McVeigh’s ordnance killed 168 people, the federal government is embarking on a strategy to tie together the work of 46 government agencies that spend an estimated $11 billion annually to combat terrorism.
President Bush has put Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in charge of that job. An executive order mandates the creation of an Office of National Preparedness within FEMA to respond to chemical, biological and nuclear attacks.
The plan drew criticism from some of the agencies responsible for responding to terrorist attacks — including the FBI, which has coveted its role in handling such matters.
Despite political turf battles, the plan could begin to address a national security concern that has troubled observers since the 1995 blast in Oklahoma City: “The left hand often doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” says Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.
That isn’t to say the government hasn’t tried to implement effective policies. Two months after McVeigh’s attack, a Justice Department report set criteria for improving security at federal buildings. Before the blast, “there were no government-wide standards for security at federal facilities,” the report noted. It recommended 53 improvements — everything from erecting concrete barriers to improving training for security staff.
Most of this work has fallen to the General Services Administration, which manages federal property. Six years since the Oklahoma blast, the GSA has made more than 8,000 improvements — “countermeasures” as the agency calls them.
Paul Chistolini, acting commissioner of the GSA division that manages most federal properties, is responsible for balancing accessibility with safety. Buildings need to be “friendly [and] inviting and yet convey a sense to people that there are security measures,” Chistolini says. “Our buildings are there to serve the public and not to deter them from coming in.”
Direct connection to bombing
The GSA has added more than 200 officers and 6,000 contract guards to the ranks of the Federal Protective Service, a police force for federal facilities. FPS officers now receive extra training in handling potentially violent situations.
The federal government also puts many of its buildings on alert several times a year. In some cases, day care centers housed in federal buildings are closed for the day or extra security personnel is brought in.
At the federal courthouse in Manhattan, where four men are on trial on charges of conspiring in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, the locations of security posts are shifted and truck deliveries are randomly inspected. It’s not just for deterrence; officials also want to allay any fears of the estimated 30,000 public employees who work in and around the courthouse.
“You have to send that visible message to them so they feel safe,” Chistolini says.
Precautions on a massive scale
Major international and national events now get a “special event readiness level,” or SERL, which determines how much preparation is needed. The 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City are SERL I, with massive planning and on-site personnel. The 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle was SERL II, with major planning but less manpower. A Super Bowl might be SERL III.
At the NATO summit in Washington in 1999, despite the FBI’s belief that there were “no positive indications of a terrorist threat,” federal planners determined that a crisis could overwhelm local resources. They prepared security plans that included deploying urban search-and-rescue teams to help find survivors in case of an attack, a 350-person Marine Corps chemical biological incident response force and more than 100 people on disaster medical assistance teams.
Despite these preparations, until the Bush administration’s move, no single agency previously was responsible for top-down accountability for managing the overall threat. That lack of accountability drew criticism from law enforcement and Congress and even from within the administration itself.
Instead, agencies throughout the federal government — from the Pentagon to the Agriculture Department, as well as independent commissions — crafted their own antiterrorism plans. Those efforts often collided.
“We’re missing a conductor,” says Skelton. “It takes a lot of intelligence on a lot of different levels to glue all this together.”
Work to be done
Coordination has improved, but much work has yet to be done. This was illustrated during Operation Topoff, a $3 million training exercise in May 2000 that simulated terror attacks in Washington, Denver and Portsmouth, N.H. In the Denver exercise, which simulated the release of plague-inducing bacteria, hospitals were overwhelmed by thousands of patients and had to shut down, while those remaining open fought over crucial supplies like ventilators and faced a crush of worried residents.
Samples of vaccines and other supplies from the government’s National Pharmaceutical Stockpile were flown in, but the single person responsible for dispensing the medicines was caught in traffic for six hours trying to get to the supermarket to buy plastic bags to hold supplies.
Participants complained that the entire operation was woefully understaffed and hampered by endless conference calls. Some medical officials said they had no idea who was in charge, while other participants said the FBI simply assumed it was running things.
Oklahoma City as case study
Ironically, the aftermath of Oklahoma City was, to some, a case study in sound decisions. Local officials handled the initial response to the bombing, the FBI investigated the attack, and the entire episode passed without any major infringement on citizens’ civil rights. Federal efforts were praised for their restraint.
But future risks remain difficult to assess. Luck and solid investigative work have been behind the success of many thwarted terror attempts since Oklahoma City.
It’s unclear whether intelligence would have stopped McVeigh or others who might act as what officials term a “lone wolf.” As McVeigh himself said in his biography, “I blew up the Murrah building, and isn’t it kind of scary that one man could reap this kind of hell?”
What form a terrorist attack might take — as well as the level of threat — remains hard to assess. Although federal efforts largely focus on nuclear, biological and chemical threats, most terror attempts in the past several years involved more conventional weapons.
“The real objective danger is very low, and I think people are exaggerating these things,” says domestic terrorism expert Sean Anderson of Idaho State University. “They’re going to use bombs and bullets. That is what’s really more likely to happen than someone dispersing anthrax” at an airport.
Regardless of what the risks are, officials say they will always remain. Federal buildings are frequently on alert, and Washington’s concerns appear to be mounting.
Allbaugh’s appointment, and the creation of an office to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts, could go a long way toward reassuring Americans their government is prepared. It is far less clear whether those efforts will prove successful.