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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Top Officials (TOPOFF)


TOPOFF is a national-level domestic exercise with an international component, designed to strengthen the nation's capacity to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from large-scale terrorist attacks involving Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). As part of the National Level Exercise (NLE) series, TOPOFF includes a comprehensive program of counterterrorism training activities conducted on a two-year cycle, and involves participants and planners from across the federal interagency and international communities. Through the TOPOFF exercise, participants are challenged to make difficult decisions, carry out essential functions, and maintain a common operating picture during an incident of national significance. Within the Department of State, the Operations Directorate of the Bureau of Counterterrorism leads the effort to integrate the participation of both DOS and partner nations into the overall TOPOFF exercise, and ensures that Departmental and international exercise training objectives are met.

A robot searches for bombs during a TOPOFF 3 exercise held in April 2005. AP/WWP.

TOPOFF exercises are designed to simulate actual WMD threats by fictionalized international terrorist organizations and involve live exercise play. In order to make the exercises as authentic as possible, participants are given little forewarning of what scenarios they will face, such as type of WMD involved, specific location, date, or time of the attacks.

TOPOFF simulations create opportunities for participants to experience the magnitude of the challenge, to consider available options, and to manage responses and consequences. The exercises also provide essential information needed to improve coordination throughout the U.S. Government, and between the U.S. Government and international, state and local entities. Following each exercise, an after-action report is prepared to identify successes, "lessons learned," and shortcomings to be addressed. Short of an actual attack, TOPOFF simulations are the best possible way to train emergency responders, gauge and improve preparedness, and identify areas for improvement.

The primary goal of all TOPOFF exercises is to promote unity of effort. These exercises improve the capability of government officials and agencies, both within the U.S. and abroad, to provide an effective, coordinated, strategic response to all aspects of a WMD attack.

The first TOPOFF was held in May 2000 in Denver, Colorado and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Denver participants faced a simulated chemical attack, while New Hampshire participants were confronted with a biological attack.

TOPOFF 2, conducted in May 2003, included over 8,000 participants in Seattle, Washington and Chicago, Illinois and involved significant participation by the Canadian Government.

TOPOFF 3, held in April 2005 involved a biological attack in New Jersey and a chemical attack in Connecticut. Over 20,000 participants were involved representing more than 250 federal, state, and local agencies, private businesses, volunteer groups, and international organizations. Canada and the United Kingdom joined the simulation as international partners that conducted simultaneous, related exercises in concert with U.S. efforts. DOS took the lead in organizing the international component by managing the interface among the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The benefit of international participation in the TOPOFF exercises cannot be overstated. The United Kingdom’s efficient response and management of the London subway bombing of July 2005 were due in part to the lessons learned from their participation in TOPOFF 3.

TOPOFF 4 involved over 23,000 participants from Federal, international, State, territorial, regional, tribal, local, volunteer, and private sector organizations. TOPOFF 4 was conducted from October 15-24, 2007, and simulated Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD), or “dirty bomb” attacks in the Territory of Guam, Portland, Oregon, and Phoenix, Arizona. The scenario simulated casualties and widespread contamination, and although real weapons were not used, the response was mounted as if they had been.

Three international partners participated in TOPOFF 4: Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. As in previous TOPOFF exercises, CT managed the international aspects of the exercise, which focused on crisis management, information sharing, consular operations, and public messaging. International activities focused on border issues, commercial aviation to and from the United States, and U.S. acceptance of international offers of assistance. Teams from Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom deployed to exercise locations to assist their citizens, and to interact with local and Federal authorities. In Washington DC, DOS activated an Exercise Task Force and participated in high level meetings with other Department and Agency decision-makers. In addition, DOS deployed a representative to the Joint Field Office in Portland to coordinate with the international teams and domestic interagency responders. American Embassies in Canberra, Ottawa and London convened Emergency Action Committees and worked closely with host governments and the DOS Task Force.


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