WASHINGTON, DC—The Department of Homeland Security announced Monday that its Counter-Counterterrorism Unit successfully carried out its largest and most complex anti-anti-terror exercise to date, destroying the Washington Monument in a massive explosion that left 122 dead, dozens more injured, and the area around the National Mall a chaotic scene of smoke and debris.
"We learned from Sept. 11 that we can't just sit back and wait for the terrorists to attack us," said DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff at a press conference held in front of an on-site triage tent, gesturing to the blackened stump of the 122-year-old obelisk as divers pulled bodies from the nearby reflecting pool. "We still have a lot of work to do, but this operation exceeded our expectations. If we hadn't destroyed the Washington Monument today, we would never have known how vulnerable it was to attack."
"Now it can never be destroyed by terrorists," Chertoff added.
While the counterterrorism unit assigned to protect Washington, D.C.'s landmarks was recognized for its "loyal service," Chertoff said the counter-counterterrorism team deserved special praise for having had "such a profound impact" on the future of American security.
The CCU was created in 2004 in response to the lack of terror activity since the Sept. 11 attacks. Its main tasks include raising awareness among the American public of the "myriad unknown threats" that still face the country, while also testing the readiness and effectiveness of the nation's counterterrorism program by exposing agents to real-world scenarios. Last winter, the eight-man Counter-Counterterrorism Unit was prevented from blowing up the Statue of Liberty and from releasing deadly sarin gas at a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game. But sources within DHS said they believed CCU's months of planning and reconnaissance paid off in the latest exercise.
The CCU's after-action report showed that the team began the mission by convening outside the monument at 10:23 a.m., disguised as counterterrorism officers. Commanding officer Commanding Officer Sgt. Campbell Payton, who is believed to be the leader of the group, then ordered sharpshooters stationed around the perimeter to begin eliminating security personnel, and sent a four-man team to choose hostages from the terrified tourists at the scene.
After taking control of the area, Payton tested his counterterrorism adversaries by demanding the release of all Guantanamo Bay detainees. When U.S. hostage negotiators said they would "see what they could do," they were shot dead by accompanying CCU agents for breaking a strict DHS policy against negotiating with terrorists.
"Events like those today prove just how real the threat is—how none of us is safe," said acting White House Press Secretary Dana Perino during a briefing today. "The White House is looking forward to many more exercises of this kindto ensure that we can fully protect high-value targets and keep this important work on the minds of the American public."
David C. Reynolds, a linguist in the DHS's terrorism prevention task force who has an office between the counterterrorism unit and the counter-counterterrorism group, said he was shaken by the loss of so many close associates.
"I'll miss having them around," Reynolds said. "I'm mourning the friends who died combating and carrying out this momentous act, but at least I know their sacrifice was not in vain."
President Bush, who has already declared a state of emergency in the area, is scheduled to tour the wreckage tomorrow. In a statement released today, Bush urged Congress to pass a proposed $291 million spending package for the counter-counterterrorism program, while pointing out "the clear need" to provide the counterterrorism program with better training and equipment.
"By shattering the Washington Monument, the peace of our nation's capital, and dozens of people's lives, the dedicated counter- counterterrorists have proven just how devastating a determined enemy can be," the statement read in part. "These brave men showed those who would seek to do us harm and those whose job it is to stop them that America is not to be trifled with."
Special officer Jeremy Stillwell, the only member of the counter-counterterrorism unit to survive the exercise, died early yesterday morning while being questioned by counter-counter-counterterrorism personnel.