Just how prepared is the United States to respond to a terrorist attack involving radioactive and biological weapons? The nation could find out as soon as next week when authorities across the country take part in a five-day exercise designed to test how well emergency teams respond to an attack involving the type of weapons that U.S. officials say al-Qaida, for one, is trying to acquire.
It's only an exercise, but it's one that the Department of Homeland Security wants to make as close to the real thing as possible.
"The exercise begins with an intelligence community assessment that an international terrorist organization has been planning attacks in several U.S. cities," said Homeland Security's Ted Macklin. He says the exercise will begin Monday with a simulated terrorist detonation of a radioactive device, known as a dirty bomb, in Seattle, Washington.
"Unbeknownst to the homeland security community at that time, two days earlier, the same terrorist organization executed an aerosolized pneumonic plague attack in several locations in Chicago," he said.
The congressionally mandated drill will involve thousands of state and city workers across the country, as well as doctors, hospitals and anyone else who would be called into action in the event of an attack.
"There will be someone standing in for the president, the chief of staff," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said. "We'll be trying to create as many decision points in the scenario as we possibly can in the five-day period. There's a lot of role-playing, but I'll be playing myself."
The drill follows a similar exercise three years ago that focused on how well authorities would respond to the release of a deadly disease like smallpox, and whether putting entire cities under quarantine would lead to national panic.
But that drill came a year before the attacks of September 11. This exercise is intended to test how well the nation responds to a much more deadly terrorist attack, one involving nuclear and biological weapons.
"Some of the threats that we're finding from the adversaries in the caves of Afghanistan, it was a logical choice to select those two elements," said Mr. Macklin.
And, the lessons learned will be well worth the cost, according to terrorism expert Neil Livingstone.
"This is going to be an extremely valuable lesson. I don't think the country is particularly well prepared for any kind of attack right now," he said. "And I think that's why it's so important that we get more time in the field, where we get agencies cooperating together, see how their communications work together, see how they respond to different things. We're still very vulnerable as a country."
U.S. officials have been warning the nation remains vulnerable to another terrorist attack, perhaps one far deadlier than the events of September 11, 2001.