Washington (CNSNews.com) - A terrorist attack on the United States sometime in the future is "inevitable" and the U.S. government should immediately develop a national strategy to respond effectively, a new study says.
"We are impelled by the stark realization that a terrorist attack on some level inside our borders is inevitable, and the United States must be ready," Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, chairman of a national domestic terrorism panel, said at a news conference in the National Press Club on Thursday.
The study recommended that President-elect George Bush should develop a national strategy within one year and present it to Congress, said Gilmore, who heads the "Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction," on publication of the panel's second of three annual reports.
Congress established the anti-terrorism panel in April 1999 to assess the United States' domestic response capabilities to terrorism after bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 225 people and injured thousands of others, in August 1998.
The United States cannot prevent all terrorist attacks, the report noted. "The continuing challenge for the United States is first to deter and, failing that, to detect and interdict terrorists before they strike. Should an attack occur, local, state and federal authorities must be prepared to respond and mitigate the consequences of the attack," it said.
The panel recommended that the Defense Department should be involved in a response to a terrorist attack on the United States, but always in a capacity that was subordinate to a civilian agency, Gilmore said.
Instead, the new strategy should give state and local fire departments, law enforcement agencies and emergency medical services a major role in planning and executing any new approach, Gilmore said. The effort must be national in scope, not just federal, he said.
The government has not paid enough attention to state and local capabilities for combating terrorism and has not devoted sufficient capabilities to augment these resources, the panel found.
A disproportionately small amount of the total funds appropriated for combating terrorism is being allocated to provide assistance to state and local response efforts. The level of federal funding is not commensurate with the importance that state and local capabilities will have in any response to a terrorist attack inside U.S. borders.
The study also found that the current government anti-terrorism programs are "fragmented, uncoordinated, and politically unaccountable."
The Congress shares responsibility for the inadequate coordination of programs. "At least 11 full committees in the Senate and 14 full committees in the House - as well as their numerous subcommittees - claim oversight or some responsibility for various U.S. programs for combating terrorism," the report said.
To coordinate efforts, the president should establish a National Office for Combating Terrorism in the White House to prepare for, deter and respond to international as well as domestic terrorism.
The office would have the authority to conduct extensive budget review and "eliminate conflicts and unnecessary duplication among agencies."
The distinctions between international terrorism and domestic terrorist attacks are eroding, the report said, citing attacks as disparate as the Oklahoma City bombing, the World Trade Center bombing in New York in 1993, attacks on the embassies in East Africa and the recent attack on the USS Cole. Gilmore also cited successes by immigration officials in apprehending terrorist suspects at U.S. borders.
"To be functionally comprehensive, the national strategy should address the full spectrum of the nation's efforts against terrorism," including intelligence, deterrence, prosecution and crisis management, the report said.
The study also recommended that Congress should consolidate authority over anti-terrorism programs into a Special Committee for Combating Terrorism - either a joint Senate-House committee or a separate committee in each chamber.
The government should ensure that high-level state and local officials help develop and implement a national strategy for terrorism preparedness.
To this end, "adequate stockpiles of vaccines should be created and made accessible for rapid response to a terrorist biological attack," the report said.