At midnight tonight, all hell breaks loose
A “dirty bomb
” smuggled into the country by terrorists will hit the Steel Bridge, an iconic symbol of the Willamette River and downtown Portland since its completion in 1912.
The attack, coordinated with two other attacks in Guam and Phoenix
, will likely cripple transportation options throughout downtown Portland. As radiation from the bomb spreads, a panicking populace
will turn to local and national authorities to calm their fears and regain order.
This is the scenario being laid out for me and about 25 other members of the media by Jeremy Greenberg of the Department of Homeland Security earlier today. We're all in a quiet ballroom
at the Portland Airport Sheraton. No one seems nervous.
TOPOFF (Top Officials) 4, the largest and most complex counterterrorism drill in this country's history, is set to go off tonight in Portland. Thousands of participants from all levels of government have converged on our city
, from local police and paramedics all the way up to officials from the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. The “Steel Bridge” for the exercise will be located at Portland International Raceway
in North Portland, and several other sites around town will be used as staging areas for things like medical care and operations centers.
In theory, nobody in town will really be aware this “exercise” is happening. No chaos in the streets. No radiation cloud floating across the city.
Mayor Tom Potter, who along with other local officials pitched Portland as a venue for the federally funded TOPOFF program, has cleared his schedule for the week. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will be here, holding a press conference on Thursday afternoon.
And if all goes according to plan, the government will learn valuable lessons
about how to keep us all safer in case of an actual attack.
Greenberg is explaining all of this to us, but its difficult to feel the importance and urgency of the operation. We're all here for the first scheduled media briefing, and we'll all be at the same locations throughout the week, showing up at different venues for press conferences and carefully planned b-roll opportunities.
But how will we really get a sense of what's going on behind the closed doors and newly fenced-off areas? How can we be convinced that it's truly valuable to have 5,000 adult men and women playing in a game for a week where they already know when and where this “attack” they're responding to will be happening? Are Portland, Phoenix, and Guam really the best places to be holding these drills?
I drove out to PIR after the press conference today to try and get a peek at what was going on out there. It was raining, and there didn't appear to be much going on yet. There were no giant Steel Bridge mock-ups, just what looked like a lot of big tents with lots of security around them. About 15 policemen on motorcycles drove by as I was taking pictures. A few seemed to be glaring.
The appearance of TOPOFF 4 (like the August drill, Operation Noble Resolve
)has brought out several conspiracy theorists who are afraid the exercise will “go live
,” that the government will stage an actual attack on Portland this week and use it both to declare martial law on us and to attack Iran. Here
's a (lengthy) explanation of where these beliefs come from.
It's certainly a terrifying scenario. And although my skepticism levels are pretty high, I decide to take a little detour on the way back to the office and drive across the Steel Bridge. Just in case I don't get another chance.