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U.S. Department of Homeland Security  

Transcript of Press Conference with Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff on the TOPOFF 3 Exercise

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 4, 2005

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: Good morning, everybody. Well, welcome to TOPOFF. As you probably know, TOPOFF is the third in a series of preparedness exercises that were mandated by Congress through which we test our ability to prepare for and respond to a pretend or simulated terrorist event -- and I want to underscore “simulated” -- all over the state of New Jersey and the state of Connecticut in the next few days. People are going to be seeing hazmat suits and vehicles and police. And I know an effort has been made to warn the citizens that this is not War of the Worlds, that it is an important and serious exercise, but ultimately something that is not occurring in real life.

This is going to play out over a series of several days through April 8th, and I want to take the opportunity to thank everybody who is participating in the exercise. We have approximately 10,000 participants from 27 federal agencies, and more than 200 government as well as private sector organizations, which makes this the largest exercise of its kind in history dealing with counterterrorism.

And I want to thank everybody who has taken the time and effort over a period of weeks and months to put this together and then to play it out over the next week.

This team that's participating in TOPOFF 3 includes everybody from cabinet secretaries, international partners, governors, mayors, city managers, local fire and police, search and rescue personnel, public health and public communications officials, and the private sector. And the point of the exercise is not only for each of us to test our own preparedness and response, but to work as a whole to coordinate our entire effort and to see how that coordination and collaboration works.

This is another example of the way in which we constantly see that dealing with the issue of terrorism or any other catastrophic -- potentially catastrophic event is a matter of partnership. No one entity, no one level of government, or even government as a whole, does it all by itself. We all have to work together, from the private sector through the public sector, individual citizens, all the way up to people here in Washington.

I also want to take the opportunity to particularly note how pleased I am that both Canada and the United Kingdom are participating in TOPOFF 3. We also have 13 other countries, including Mexico, participating as observers, underscoring how this is really an international effort.

Now again, I want to make it very clear, this is a simulation. It is an exercise. It is realistic, but it is a response to a non-real event. And I also want to make it clear that neither the particular locations nor the particular scenarios were picked based on any specific intelligence. They really reflect kind of a compilation of threats that we've seen over time, plus an ability to kind of project out what something might -- what might occur, if, in fact, there were a terrorist attack. In the particular locations, of course, were volunteers to participate in this program.

Now, of course, what is preparedness? Preparedness is learning from past experiences, testing ourselves, and then building upon the experiences in the tests to build a better product and to prepare ourselves better. It's like any other -- it's like a competition for a sporting event. The more you scope out the lay of the land, you see the course, you work yourself up into a situation of readiness, the better prepared you are when the real event occurs.

In this case, TOPOFF 3 will build on the lessons of the prior TOPOFF exercises, also upon our general experience in putting together a National Response Plan, a National Incident Management System, and a whole comprehensive set of tools for dealing with the issue of hazards.

I want to make it clear that we are going to push our plans and our systems to the very limit. So, in this sense, we're actually going to go beyond what we might really expect to test our operational assumptions and our policy assumptions in the most stressful possible environment. And that's how you really tell if you are prepared. You stress the system to the point at which it comes to failure or actually exceeds failure. When they test passenger airliners, they put them through physical maneuvers that you would never see in real life with a full plane load of passengers, because you really want to see what the tolerance is for the wings and for the fuselage. That's our philosophy here.

So we expect failure because we're actually going to be seeking to push to failure, and that is, in our judgment, the best way to get a “lessons learned” from what we do here over the next week, and what we've, in fact, done over the last few months.

On a personal note, by the way, this is a great learning opportunity for me. I've been on the job for less than two months, and it will give me a bird's-eye view of what we have done and what we have yet to do as part of our review of the Department.

We are always learning from our past experiences and trying to improve ourselves. TOPOFF 3 is a great example of how we and all of our partners in state, local and private activity are working together to make things -- improve our preparedness, and, if necessary, our response.

And I'll take a few questions.

QUESTION: Did you review the results of TOPOFF 2 in preparing yourself? And what do you personally very specifically look for in playing TOPOFF 3?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: I did get a general review of what happened in TOPOFF 2. I didn't get into enormous detail. What I'm looking for is to particularly examine the way in which we coordinate in the face of a dynamic stressful situation, to see how it is that we execute from a policy decision or an operational decision, to actually moving the people and things to the field, and then distributing them and taking the necessary steps in the real world. And that's why an important part of this is the participation of hospitals and first responders and police who are actually going to play out the scenarios that are decided by people sitting in offices in Trenton and in Hartford and here in Washington.


QUESTION: Can you tell us about the role of intelligence gathering in the last few weeks? Have they been able to see any of this coming?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: As a matter of fact -- I'm glad you raised that -- there was an important part of this exercise was the intelligence exercise. There was a simulated stream of intelligence which was built up over the last few weeks. All the intelligence agencies participated, and again, the effort there is to see how they all work together, how they analyze and exchange information, and pull together the streams of intelligence. And of course, the product will then play a role in our decision making as we go forward and implement the exercise over the next several days.


QUESTION: Did the intelligence community succeed in stopping any aspects of the attack?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: I think I'm going to wait until the exercise is over, and then we'll do a full report card on how everybody did. We didn't -- I mean, one of the issues about -- I should make this clear -- about stressing to failure is we didn't want to be too good. If we had succeeded in stopping all the threats, there wouldn't be a second part of the exercise. So you will see there are some decisions we will make, we have made and we will make, that will perhaps not be what we would do in real life, because we need to make sure we can play the exercise out along the entire range from the original Intel all the way through to the response.

QUESTION: Is there something you've already learned, perhaps, from the way that the intelligence community responded?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: I think, again, I'm going to take the opportunity to go through the entire process. Then we'll examine the results and we'll make a -- draw our conclusions about the important lessons that have been learned.


QUESTION: The decision to go to Code Red in TOPOFF 2, as I understand, created a lot of chaos in Seattle. Is there any decision to go to code -- to raise the alert level to red in this exercise, or is there any reluctance, based on what happened two years ago?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: Well, I think what we're going to do in this exercise is, again, based on what is presented in the field, based on what we're getting and reporting back, based on what the simulated intelligence is, we will make real-time judgments about what to do.

We're not going to -- obviously, we want to learn lessons from TOPOFF 2, but the point of this is not to design a simulation that makes us "look good," because we figured out to prepackage everything we want to do. The point is actually to drive at the areas where we think there are potential questions or weaknesses, and really push those areas to learn more lessons.


QUESTION: Can you just give us a small sense, as we sit here, in real time what has happened so far (inaudible) two attacks have taken place already?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: Well, I'm -- to get into the spirit of the exercise, I'm going to wait to go get briefed on that when I get back, and that's going to be part of my process of responding in my simulated role as Secretary of Homeland Security.

QUESTION: There's 13 other -- 13 nations that are observers. Are they observing from their own nations, or are they represented here?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: Well, we have -- no, we have representatives here from the observer nations. But there will actually be Canada and the United Kingdom who are participating. There will be participation in their home capitals.


QUESTION: You were mentioning, I guess, in (inaudible), that there's actually been a lot of flooding in New Jersey (inaudible) that has affected this exercise.

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: It has had some impact. It's not going to prevent the exercise from going forward. Obviously, real life does intrude on simulation. But there's a lesson there as well, which is in real life, if there were a terrorist attack, we couldn't guarantee there wouldn't be flooding or some natural event. So it will have to be incorporated into the way we play the game out.

QUESTION: Do you know if it's diverting any personnel?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: My understanding is we will be able to -- New Jersey will be able to carry out its commitments and its full participation in the exercise.


QUESTION: How are you ensuring that all the different participants are able to share information effectively, given all the different systems that are in place?

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: Well, that's, again, part of the exercise, is to make sure that we do have interoperability to allow the various components that are actually participating in the field to communicate with each other and do what they have to do. That's -- these are exactly the kinds of questions that TOPOFF is designed to answer, by seeing how these things play out in real life.


QUESTION: Just out of curiosity, I'm wondering how close to your home the New Jersey site is, is it (inaudible) and whether or not it's affecting your friends and family.

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: It's not -- well, there were big ads over the paper over the weekend that I think -- I think the government actually made some public statements making it very clear this is not a replay of War of the Worlds, and I think that the expectation is people will understand and not be alarmed by what they see.

All right, thanks a lot. We'll see what happens.