Who Responds to Terrorist Attacks?

Terrorists crashed hijacked commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Tuesday. How does the government respond to terrorist attacks?

The federal government divides its response to a catastrophic terrorist attack into crisis management and consequence management. Crisis management means going after the bad guys–it’s a law-enforcement response headed by the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (Crisis management also involves anticipating and preventing acts of terrorism.) Consequence management involves the humanitarian side of the response, including measures to protect public health and safety, restore essential government services, and provide emergency relief to governments, businesses, and individuals. The lead agency for consequence management is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (Click here to learn more about FEMA.)

The first line of defense in any emergency is city governments (including fire and police), who turn to their state governments when they fear their resources have been exhausted. If state governments don’t have the resources to respond, they ask the federal government for help. So, the primary responsibility for consequence management after a terrorist attack goes to state and local governments, with assistance from the feds.

On the crisis management side, the FBI director and the attorney general notify the president and the National Security Council of their actions as warranted and coordinate their response with the White House. The FBI also coordinates its activities with local law enforcement.

Bonus Explainer: What’s the role of the military during all of this? The Department of Defense is considered a “support agency” that assists in counterterrorism measures. But the federal Posse Comitatus Act prohibits the military from acting as domestic police, so the military does not assist in crisis management. Instead, it may assist FEMA with consequence management.

A couple years ago, the Pentagon considered creating a “homeland defense” commander, who would serve as the commander in chief for the defense of the United States. Civil libertarians objected to the possibility of an increased role for the military on American soil, and the idea was batted down. Civil libertarians take note: Two years ago, a Pentagon official told the New York Times that a major terrorist attack would be “the most threatening event to civil liberties since Pearl Harbor,” a reference to the subsequent internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans.

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Explainer thanks the Terrorism Incident Annex to the Federal Response Plan.