Did you ever hear of Operation Dark Winter and Clade X? The US Germ Games

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It’s not like they hadn’t practiced for it!

Dark Winter was focused on evaluating the inadequacies of a national emergency response during the use of a biological weapon against the American populace. The exercise was intended to establish preventive measures and response strategies by increasing governmental and public awareness of the magnitude and potential of such a threat posed by biological weapons.

Scenario

Dark Winter’s simulated scenario involved an initial localized smallpox attack on Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with additional smallpox attack cases in Georgia and Pennsylvania. The simulation was then designed to spiral out of control. This would create a contingency in which the National Security Council struggles to determine both the origin of the attack as well as deal with containing the spreading virus. By not being able to keep pace with the disease’s rate of spread, a new catastrophic contingency emerges in which massive civilian casualties would overwhelm America’s emergency response capabilities.

The disastrous contingencies that would result in the massive loss of civilian life were used to exploit the weaknesses of the U.S. health care infrastructure and its inability to handle such a threat. The contingencies were also meant to address the widespread panic that would emerge and which would result in mass social breakdown and mob violence. Exploits would also include the many difficulties that the media would face when providing American citizens with the necessary information regarding safety procedures. Discussing the outcome of Dark Winter, Bryan Walsh noted “The timing–just a few months before the 9/11 attack–was eerily prescient, as if the organizers had foreseen how the threat of terrorism, including bioterrorism, would come to consume the U.S. government and public in the years to come.

Overview (From the Center for Health Security)

The Dark Winter exercise, held at Andrews AFB, Washington, DC, June 22-23, 2001, portrayed a fictional scenario depicting a covert smallpox attack on US citizens. The scenario is set in 3 successive National Security Council (NSC) meetings (Segments 1, 2 and 3) that take place over a period of 14 days. Former senior government officials played the roles of NSC members responding to the evolving epidemic; representatives from the media were among the observers of these mock NSC meetings and played journalists during the scenario’s press conferences.

About the Exercise

On June 22-23, 2001, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, and the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention Terrorism, hosted a senior-level war game examining the national security, intergovernmental, and information challenges of a biological attack on the American homeland. (See also: Article: Shining Light on Dark Winter)

With tensions rising in the Taiwan Straits, and a major crisis developing in Southwest Asia, a smallpox outbreak was confirmed by the CDC in Oklahoma City. During the thirteen days of the game, the disease spread to 25 states and 15 other countries. Fourteen participants and 60 observers witnessed terrorism/warfare in slow motion. Discussions, debates (some rather heated), and decisions focused on the public health response, lack of an adequate supply of smallpox vaccine, roles and missions of federal and state governments, civil liberties associated with quarantine and isolation, the role of DoD, and potential military responses to the anonymous attack. Additionally, a predictable 24/7 news cycle quickly developed that focused the nation and the world on the attack and response. Five representatives from the national press corps (including print and broadcast) participated in the game and conducted a lengthy press conference with the President.

Key Players

  • President: The Hon. Sam Nunn
  • National Security Advisor: The Hon. David Gergen
  • Director of Central Intelligence: The Hon. R. James Woolsey
  • Secretary of Defense: The Hon. John White
  • Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: General John Tilelli (USA, Ret.)
  • Secretary of Health & Human Services: The Hon. Margaret Hamburg
  • Secretary of State: The Hon. Frank Wisner
  • Attorney General: The Hon. George Terwilliger
  • Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency: Mr. Jerome Hauer
  • Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation: The Hon. William Sessions
  • Governor of Oklahoma: The Hon. Frank Keating
  • Press Secretary of Gov. Frank Keating (OK): Mr. Dan Mahoney
  • Correspondent, NBC News: Mr. Jim Miklaszewski
  • Pentagon Producer, CBS News: Ms. Mary Walsh
  • Reporter, British Broadcasting Corporation: Ms. Sian Edwards
  • Reporter, The New York Times: Ms. Judith Miller
  • Reporter, Freelance: Mr. Lester Reingold

The Dark Winter exercise was the collaborative effort of 4 organizations. John Hamre of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) initiated and conceived of an exercise wherein senior former officials would respond to a bioterrorist induced national security crisis. Tara O’Toole and Tom Inglesby of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies and Randy Larsen and Mark DeMier of Analytic Services, Inc., (ANSER) were the principal designers, authors, and controllers of Dark Winter. Sue Reingold of CSIS managed administrative and logistical arrangements. General Dennis Reimer of the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT) provided funding for Dark Winter.

I was honored to play the part of the President in the exercise Dark Winter . . You often don’t know what you don’t know until you’ve been tested. And it’s a lucky thing for the United States that, as the emergency broadcast network used to say, ‘this is just a test, this is not a real emergency.’ But Mr. Chairman, our lack of preparation is a real emergency. 

The Honorable Sam Nunn, House Hearing on Combating Terrorism: Federal Response to a Biological Weapons Attack, July 23, 2001

Dark Winter revealed that major “fault lines” exist between different levels of government (federal, state, and local), between government and the private sector, among different institutions and agencies, and within the public and private sector. Leaders are unfamiliar with the character of bioterrorist attacks, available policy options, and their consequences. Federal and state priorities may be unclear, differ, or conflict; authorities may be uncertain; and constitutional issues may arise. For example, state leaders wanted control of decisions regarding the imposition of disease-containment measures (e.g., mandatory vs. voluntary isolation and vaccination), the closure of state borders to all traffic and transportation, and when or whether to close airports. Federal officials, on the other hand, argued that such issues were best decided on a national basis to ensure consistency and to give the President maximum control of military and public-safety assets. Leaders in states most affected by smallpox wanted immediate access to smallpox vaccine for all citizens of their states, but the federal government had to balance these requests against military and other national priorities. State leaders were opposed to federalizing the National Guard, which they were relying on to support logistical and public supply needs, while a number of federal leaders argued that the National Guard should be federalized.

Operation Clade X

Clade X is a day-long pandemic tabletop exercise that simulated a series of National Security Council–convened meetings of 10 US government leaders, played by individuals prominent in the fields of national security or epidemic response.

Drawing from actual events, Clade X identified important policy issues and preparedness challenges that could be solved with sufficient political will and attention. These issues were designed in a narrative to engage and educate the participants and the audience.

Lessons learned were distilled and shared broadly following the exercise.

PURPOSE

Faced with a rapidly evolving biological threat landscape, government leaders in the United States and abroad are eager to identify long-term policy commitments that will strengthen preparedness and mitigate risk. Clade X illustrated high-level strategic decisions and policies needed to prevent a severe pandemic or diminish its consequences should prevention fail.

Similar to findings from the Center’s two previous exercises, Dark Winter and Atlantic Storm, key takeaways from Clade X will educate senior leaders at the highest level of the US government, as well as members of the global policy and preparedness community and the general public. This is distinct from many other forms of tabletop exercises that test protocols or technical policies of a specific organization.

In addition, exercises like Clade X are a particularly effective way to help policymakers gain a fuller understanding of the urgent challenges they could face in a dynamic, real-world crisis.

WHEN/WHERE

Tuesday, May 15, 2018
9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Mandarin Oriental Hotel
Washington, DC

AUDIENCE

An invitation-only audience of nearly 150 people attended the exercise, and a livestream of the event on Facebook was available to everyone.

EXERCISE TEAM

Eric Toner, MD, is the exercise team lead.

Exercise team members are Tom Inglesby, MD; Anita Cicero, JD; Randy Larsen, USAF (retired); Crystal Watson, DrPH, MPH; Gigi Kwik Gronvall, PhD; Jennifer Nuzzo, DrPH, SM; Monica Schoch-Spana, PhD; Tara Kirk Sell, PhD, MA; Amesh Adalja, MD; Caitlin Rivers, PhD, MPH; Christopher Hurtado, MHS; Diane Meyer, RN, MPH; Sanjana Ravi, MPH; Matthew Shearer, MPH; Michael Snyder, MALD; Matthew Watson; Richard E. Waldhorn, MD; Jackie Fox; Andrea Lapp; Nick Alexopulos, MBA; and Julia Cizek.

Clade X is supported by funding from the Open Philanthropy Project.

The Open Philanthropy Action Fund (OPAF) is the political arm of the Open Philanthropy Project (OPP), a grantmaking foundation that gives to numerous left-of-center organizations concerned with criminal justice policy. The OPP began as a project of GiveWell, a group which seeks to improve philanthropy, and Good Ventures , the private grantmaking foundation of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna. Nearly all of OPP’s funding comes from Moskovitz and Tuna. The OPP also has a donor-advised fund, the Open Philanthropy Project Fund (OPPF). Combined, the three organizations have given almost $1.2 billion in grants since their founding.

Grants given by these organizations go to four focus areas: global health and development, scientific research, catastrophic risk, and domestic policy, which includes organizations that support left-of-center criminal justice and expansionist immigration policies. OPAF handles a minority of donations, which go primarily towards left-of-center criminal justice reform advocacy groups.