This article was reproduced with the permission of the Aspen Institute.
Of all topics related to the war on terror, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and homeland security, “consequence management” is surely the most dismal, for it has as its antecedent the failure of the highest priority objective in this area, prevention. When policy makers are called upon to manage the consequences of a terrorist attack, their efforts to prevent the attack have failed. Moreover, the term “consequence management” is too narrow to capture properly all the steps that the U.S. government would take in response to a terrorist attack, a credible terrorist threat, or another such incident of national significance. Hence, this paper will use instead the term “incident management.”
The U.S. government has initiated major changes in its incident management system in the three years since the 9/11 attacks. This new system is, in many respects, a work in progress. Many of the changes currently underway are not well understood outside the government or even, in some cases, within the government. This paper will describe the emerging new national incident management system—principally from a point of view at the apex of the system, the White House.
The paper will provide a few comments on how incidents of national significance are managed in general. It will then offer a number of observations about the special challenges presented by the two most extreme WMD threats: nuclear weapons and biological weapons, and conclude by summarizing a number of outstanding policy challenges in the area of incident management.
The single most significant reason why incident management is important is that lives can hang in the balance. Effective incident management is also critical to maintaining the public’s confidence in the government during crises or times of stress. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for senior officials to relegate incident management to low-level specialists, who labor away in obscurity only to find their plans and procedures swept away at a moment’s notice by the press of events or the idiosyncrasies of principals whom they do not know.