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Operation Dark Winter

operation dark winter, real world operation dark winter
Operation Dark Winter was the code name for a senior-level bio-terrorist attack simulation conducted from June 22–23, 2001123 It was designed to carry out a mock version of a covert and widespread smallpox attack on the United States Tara O'Toole and Thomas Inglesby of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies CCBS / Center for Strategic and International Studies CSIS, and Randy Larsen and Mark DeMier of Analytic Services were the principal designers, authors, and controllers of the Dark Winter project

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 solely 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

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 US 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


  • 1 Summary of Findings
  • 2 Key participants
  • 3 In popular culture
  • 4 See also
  • 5 References
  • 6 External links

Summary of Findingsedit

According to UPMC's Center for Health Security, Dark Winter outlined several key findings with respect to the United States healthcare system's ability to respond to a localized bioterrorism event:

  • An attack on the United States with biological weapons could threaten vital national security interests4

In addition to the possibility of massive civilian casualties, Dark Winter outlined the possible breakdown in essential institutions, resulting in a loss of confidence in government, followed by civil disorder, and a violation of democratic processes by authorities attempting to restore order Shortages of vaccines and other drugs affected the response available to contain the epidemic, as well as the ability of political leaders to offer reassurance to the American people5 This led to great public anxiety and flight by people desperate to get vaccinated, and it had a significant effect on the decisions taken by the political leadership5 In addition, Dark Winter revealed that a catastrophic biowarfare event in the United States would lead to considerably reduced US strategic flexibility abroad4

  • Current organizational structures and capabilities are not well suited for the management of a biowarfare attack4

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 arise5 For example, state leaders wanted control of decisions regarding the imposition of disease-containment measures eg, mandatory vs voluntary isolation and vaccination,5 the closure of state borders to all traffic and transportation,5 and when or whether to close airports5 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 assets5 Leaders in states most affected by smallpox wanted immediate access to smallpox vaccine for all citizens of their states,5 but the federal government had to balance these requests against military and other national priorities5 State leaders were opposed to federalizing the National Guard, which they were relying on to support logistical and public supply needs,5 while a number of federal leaders argued that the National Guard should be federalized5

  • There is no surge capability in the US healthcare and public health systems,5 or in the pharmaceutical and vaccine industries4

The exercise was designed to simulate a sudden and unexpected biowarfare event for which the United States healthcare system was unprepared In the absence of sufficient preparation, Dark Winter revealed that the lack of sufficient vaccine or drugs to prevent the spread of disease severely limited management options5 Due to the institutionally limited "surge capacity" of the American healthcare system, hospitals quickly became overwhelmed and rendered effectively inoperable by the sudden and continued influx of new cases, exacerbated by patients with common illnesses who feared they might have smallpox,5 and people who were otherwise healthy, but concerned about their possible exposure5 The challenges of making correct diagnoses and rationing scarce resources, combined with shortages of health care staff, who were themselves worried about becoming infected or bringing infection home to their families, imposed a huge burden on the health care system4 The simulation also noted that while demand was highest in cities and states that had been directly attacked,5 by the time victims became symptomatic, they were geographically dispersed, with some having traveled far from the original attack site5

The simulation also found that without sufficient surge capability, public health agencies' analysis of the scope, source and progress of the epidemic was greatly impeded, as was their ability to educate and reassure the public, and their capacity to limit casualties and the spread of disease4 For example, even after the smallpox attack was recognized, decision makers were confronted with many uncertainties and wanted information that was not immediately available In fact, they were given more information on locations and numbers of infected people than would likely be available in reality5 Without accurate and timely information, participants found it difficult to quickly identify the locations of the original attacks; to immediately predict the likely size of the epidemic on the basis of initial cases; to know how many people were exposed; to find out how many were hospitalized and where; or to keep track of how many had been vaccinated5

  • Dealing with the media will be a major immediate challenge for all levels of government4

Dark Winter revealed that information management and communication eg, dealing with the press effectively, communication with citizens, maintaining the information flows necessary for command and control at all institutional levels will be a critical element in crisis/consequence management For example, participants worried that it would not be possible to forcibly impose vaccination or travel restrictions on large groups of the population without their general cooperation5 To gain that cooperation, the President and other leaders in Dark Winter recognized the importance of persuading their constituents that there was fairness in the distribution of vaccine and other scarce resources,5 that the disease-containment measures were for the general good of society,5 that all possible measures were being taken to prevent the further spread of the disease,5 and that the government remained firmly in control despite the expanding epidemic5

  • Should a contagious bioweapon pathogen be used, containing the spread of disease will present significant ethical, political, cultural, operational, and legal challenges4

In Dark Winter, some members advised the imposition of geographic quarantines around affected areas, but the implications of these measures eg, interruption of the normal flow of medicines, food and energy supplies, and other critical needs were not clearly understood at first5 In the end, it is not clear whether such draconian measures would have led to a more effective interruption of disease spread5 What's more allocation of scarce resources necessitated some degree of rationing,5 creating conflict and significant debate between participants representing competing interests

Key participantsedit

President The Hon Sam Nunn
National Security Advisor The Hon David Gergen
Director of Central Intelligence The Hon R James Woolsey, Jr
Secretary of Defense The Hon John P White
Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Tilelli, USA Ret
Secretary of Health and 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, 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

In popular cultureedit

  • Tom Clancy's The Division, a video game inspired by Dark Winter

See alsoedit

  • 2001 anthrax attacks


  1. ^ O'Leary, N P M 2005 "Bio-terrorism or Avian Influenza: California, The Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, and Protecting Civil Liberties During a Public Health Emergency" California Western Law Review California Western School of Law 42 2: 249–286 ISSN 0008-1639 
  2. ^ Chauhan, Sharad S 2004 Biological Weapons APH Publishing pp 280–282 ISBN 978-81-7648-732-0 
  3. ^ Kunstler, James Howard 2006 The Long Emergency Grove Press pp 175–178 ISBN 978-0-8021-4249-8 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h "Dark Winter - About the Exercise" University of Pittsburgh Medical Center - Center for Health Security University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Retrieved 11 July 2015 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa O'Toole, Tara; Michael, Mair; Inglesby, Thomas V 2002 "Shining Light on "Dark Winter"" Clinical Infectious Diseases 34 7: 972–983 PMID 11880964 doi:101086/339909 Retrieved 11 July 2015 

External linksedit

  • Operation Dark Winter
  • Shining Light on “Dark Winter” from the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases
  • Local Response to a National Threat
  • Preventing “Dark Winter”
  • CNN: Dark Winter and lack of USA Preparedness
  • Dark Winter Teaches Bioterror Lessons
  • Dark Winter at SourceWatch

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