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Review of the Critical Incident Response Plans of the United States Attorneys’ Offices

Report Number I-2004-001
December 2003



Critical Incidents

Critical incidents include acts of terrorism, group defiance of governmental authority, hostage situations, and natural disasters. Typically, these events involve one or more of the following factors (although the presence of one factor by itself does not automatically mean that incident is critical):

  • Involves threats or acts of violence against government or social institutions.
  • Involves significant loss of life, significant injuries, or significant damage to property.
  • Demands use of substantial resources.
  • Attracts close public scrutiny through the media.
  • Requires coordination among federal law enforcement agencies (more so than usual), state or local law enforcement agencies, local or state prosecutors, emergency relief services, and/or emergency response services.
  • Requires ongoing communication with upper level personnel at the Department of Justice.
Source: OIG review of USAOs' critical incident response plans.

After several highly publicized failures to respond effectively to critical incidents, in 1996 the Attorney General directed the Department of Justice (Department) to implement a Crisis Management Coordinator Program (CMC Program). The CMC Program required United States Attorneys' Offices (USAOs) to improve their preparedness to respond "quickly and appropriately" to critical incidents by developing critical incident response plans. The Attorney General directed the USAOs to implement the CMC Program, and the Criminal Division's Counterterrorism Section (CTS) and the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) to administer and support the Program. We conducted this review to determine whether the USAOs have acted to improve their ability to respond quickly and appropriately to critical incidents by developing comprehensive critical incident response plans, training staff to carry out the Plans, and exercising the Plans.


Responding quickly and appropriately when critical incidents occur is an essential part of the Department's mission, as well as an integral part of the Department's strategy for protecting the nation from terrorism. Problems encountered during prior critical incidents - such as the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas, the Oklahoma City bombing, and natural disasters like Hurricane Andrew - resulted in significant congressional and public scrutiny of the Department's actions. After-action reports on these and other critical incidents identified serious mistakes by the Department in areas such as communication and coordination between negotiating and tactical elements, personnel availability, crime scene management and evidence collection, and use of deadly force.

Selected Critical Incidents and Federal Actions, 1988 - 2003
 Dec 1988 - DOJ Crisis Management Plan
  Oct 1989 - DOJ National Security Emergency Preparedness Program
Ruby Ridge - Aug 1992 
Hurricane Andrew - Aug 1992 
World Trade Center Bombing - Feb 1993 
Branch Davidian Stand-Off - Feb-Apr 1993 
  Apr 1994 - FBI Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG)
Oklahoma City Bombing - April 1995 
  Jun 1995 - PDD 39, "U.S. Policy on Counterterrorism"
  Jan 1996 - Attorney Critical Incident Response Group
Freemen Standoff - Mar-Jun 1996 
  May 1996 - USAO Crisis Management Coordinator Program
  May 1998 - PDD-62, "Protection Against - Unconventional Threats to the Homeland and Americans Overseas"
Terrorists attack World Trade Center and Pentagon - Sep 2001 
  Sep 2001 - DOJ Anti-Terrorism Plan
  Oct 2001 - Deputy AG issues "Guidance for Anti-Terrorism Task Forces"
  Oct 2001 - USA PATRIOT ACT passed by Congress
Anthrax attacks: New York, Washington DC, and Florida - Oct 2001 
  Oct 2001 - Interagency Domestic Terrorism Concept of Operations Plan
  Nov 2001 - Anti-Terrorism Task Forces established in USAOs
  Nov 2001 - Blueprint for Change, A Plan to Reshape the Department and Its Components to Focus on Anti-Terrorism
  Jul 2002 - National Strategy for Homeland Security
  Nov 2002 - Reorganization of the Criminal Division
  Feb 2003 - Homeland Security Presidential Directive
Source: OIG review of departmental and other documents.
See Appendix D for a more detailed chronology of critical incident events.

Since 1988, at least 16 initiatives - 11 departmental and 5 other federal or legislative - have focused on correcting past deficiencies and improving the ability of the Department (and other federal agencies) to respond to critical incidents (the Table above). Between 1988 and 1996, these initiatives established requirements for periodic exercises of emergency operating plans, and assigned EOUSA responsibility for overseeing the emergency preparedness of the USAOs, including developing critical incident response training.12 In May 1996, the Attorney General directed that each United States Attorney establish a CMC Program, and prepare Plans as an integral part of the overall preparedness effort of each office.13

Recent initiatives reinforce that being prepared to respond to critical incidents is still one of the primary objectives of the Department. For example, the Department's Anti-Terrorism Plan (2001) and the National Strategy for Homeland Security (2002) were implemented to update the strategic objectives for the Department in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Each of those initiatives identifies three major strategic objectives for the Department, one of which is to respond effectively to critical incidents. Specifically, the initiatives direct the Department to ensure national security by:

CMC Program. The CMC Program is designed to improve the ability of the USAOs to accomplish their statutory responsibilities while responding quickly and appropriately to critical incidents.14 Specifically, implementing better planning and preparation for responding to critical incidents was intended to improve USAOs' performance in legal and procedural crisis response; enhance USAOs' coordination with law enforcement and emergency response agencies; ensure the identification and organization of resources needed to respond to a critical incident (e.g., personnel, equipment, information); and improve the USAOs' anticipation of likely crisis situations.15

Each USAO was to improve its performance in a critical incident by developing plans to clarify department-wide notification procedures, district office resources, headquarters' response, and the command and control process during a critical incident. In addition, the Attorney General directed that CTS and EOUSA administer and provide support to the CMC Program.16 The specific duties assigned to the USAOs, CTS, and EOUSA are described in the following sections. Figure 1 shows the components involved in the CMC Program.

Figure 1. Click on table  for a text version.

United States Attorney and Crisis Management Coordinator responsibilities. In the event of a critical incident, the United States Attorney is the on-scene legal decision maker responsible for managing the Department's response by, among other things:

To coordinate and plan each USAO's response to a critical incident, the Attorney General directed each United States Attorney to select a senior Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) to be the Crisis Management Coordinator (CMC) and directed that at least one AUSA at each USAO receive crisis response training. The CMCs for each USAO were directed to submit to EOUSA a Plan describing how the USAO would manage responsibilities during a critical incident. The CMCs were directed to coordinate the development and implementation of their Plans with appropriate federal, state, and local law enforcement and emergency response agencies, and participate in crisis response exercises with law enforcement and emergency response agencies. These Plans serve as the foundation upon which USAOs will base their response to a critical incident. It was the CMCs' responsibility to identify the resources required for their USAOs to respond quickly and appropriately to a critical incident.

While developing a Plan does not guarantee a flawless response to a critical incident, being prepared makes it more likely that a successful response will be achieved. As former Attorney General Janet Reno stated in a June 17, 1997, speech delivered to CMCs at the first CMC Training Conference held in Arlington, Virginia:

By being thoroughly prepared to deal with all aspects of a crisis, which can reasonably be anticipated, investigators and prosecutors free themselves to concentrate on those unique aspects of the crisis, which could not have been anticipated…. Advance preparation needs to be focused through the development of a written crisis response plan in each U.S. Attorney's Office.

CTS and EOUSA's responsibilities. To implement the CMC Program, Attorney General Reno assigned CTS to review the Plans submitted by the USAOs for content and quality and provide feedback to each district; EOUSA was assigned to monitor timely Plan submission and Plan updates. To support the CMC Program, the Attorney General directed CTS, in conjunction with EOUSA, to develop and ensure training for the CMCs. The Attorney General stressed "training and advanced planning are imperative" given the intense time constraints and public attention during a critical incident. Specifically, CTS was to provide CMCs training in:

The direction for CTS and EOUSA to develop training was reiterated on October 21, 1999,17 and in the Department's FY 2002 Performance Report:

In the area of preparation for and response to acts of terrorism, the Terrorism and Violent Crime Section [now CTS] is responsible for administering the Department's Attorney Critical Incident Response Group and its Crisis Management Coordinators program, which involves the development of a crisis response plan for each federal judicial district and the training of specially selected federal prosecutors from the U.S. Attorneys' offices and the DOJ litigating divisions in crisis preparation and response techniques.18

CMC Training Conferences. Since the inception of this CMC Program in 1996, CTS and EOUSA, through the Office of Legal Education, have held two CMC Training Conferences. The first conference took place in Arlington, Virginia, from June 17 through 20, 1997. At the Conference, the CMCs received information on the availability of cross-training crisis response exercises with the FBI and how to develop a Plan. The second conference took place in Columbia, South Carolina, from October 19 through 22, 1999. CMCs received contact information and general information on exercising Plans and preparing a portable "office in a box" (containing, for example, frequently used legal forms on a CD-ROM, cell phones for communications capabilities).19

Subsequent to the initiation of the OIG review, CTS held a two-hour Crisis Management Coordinators Videoconference through the Justice Television Network on March 26, 2003. The videoconference consisted of a briefing by a CTS Deputy Director and a senior litigation specialist. They discussed with the CMCs the existing documentation and information available on USABook Online, an internal Department of Justice website for USAOs. They also suggested that CMCs review their Plans and integrate them with the District Office Security Plan and the Anti-Terrorism Task Force (ATTF) Plan.

During this review, CTS told us that national CMC training had been planned for Fall 2001 or Spring 2002. This training was initially deferred after the events of September 11, 2001 to accommodate other training requirements mandated by the Attorney General and then deferred further because many of those who would have been the trainers or trainees were involved in the nationwide investigation of the terrorist attacks. CTS told us that additional preparedness and response training for CMCs is scheduled for March 2004.

CMC Manual. At the 1999 training conference, CTS gave the CMCs a "Crisis Management Coordinator's Manual" in both hardcopy and on CD-ROM. The CMC Manual provides legal and practical guidance on how to respond to critical incidents. Developed by CTS, the CMC Manual provides over 100 pages of detailed critical incident response information specific to the CMC Program. The second chapter of the CMC Manual contains a list of CTS-recommended action items that USAOs should take within the first 48 hours of a critical incident. The CMCs also received an electronic copy of the Attorney Critical Incident Response Group Form Book, which contains typical forms that may be needed when responding to a critical incident.


  1. DOJ Order 1900.6A, Department of Justice Crisis Management Plan, 1988; DOJ Order 1900.5A, National Security Emergency Preparedness Program, 1989; Memorandum from Merrick Garland, Principal Associate Attorney General, et al., to the Attorney General, "Attorney Critical Incident Response Group," January 11, 1996.

  2. Critical Incident Response Plan, Decision Memorandum from Merrick Garland, Principal Associate Attorney General to the Attorney General, May 23, 1996, and approved on May 24, 1996.

  3. Each of the 93 United States Attorneys is the chief federal law enforcement officer within his or her jurisdiction, and serves as the principal litigator under the direction of the Attorney General.

  4. Attorney General's speech to CMCs at the first national training conference, June 17, 1997, page 7.

  5. Effective December 1, 2002, the Terrorism and Violent Crime Section was reorganized into the Counterterrorism Section (CTS) and the Domestic Security Section (DSS).

  6. Memorandum for the Attorney General from the Deputy Attorney General, "U.S. Attorney's Offices' Preparedness to Address Critical Incidents," October 21, 1999, page 4.

  7. Department of Justice, FY 2002 Performance Report/FY 2003 Revised Final Performance Plan/FY 2004 Performance Plan, Strategic Objective & Annual Goal 1.2 -1.3: Investigate and Prosecute Terrorist Acts, page 3.

  8. See Appendix B for a more detailed description of training content.