Attacks test fed preparedness

As one observer put it, this month's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center complex in New York City and the Pentagon were in many ways the Year 2000 problem that never happened.

Just as with the Year 2000, the events of Sept. 11 underscored the importance of preparation and planning in case of disaster—and many civilian agencies found it necessary to put those plans into action.

With smoke billowing from the Pentagon less than two miles from the U.S. Postal Service's headquarters in Washington, D.C., Robert Otto, USPS' vice president for information technology, ordered activation of an emergency Postal Service command and control center about 15 miles outside Washington, D.C., in Potomac, Md.

From there, Otto said, the Postal Service was prepared to manage nationwide movement of the mail if necessary.

With its mandate to deliver the mail six days a week, the Postal Service has long made it a practice to be prepared for disaster, spokesman Mark Saunders said. "We have contingency plans for national disasters, acts of God and strikes. We have plans for terrorist attacks," he said.

And terror struck close to home in this instance. A hijacked airliner plowed into the Pentagon about 9:40 a.m. Sept. 11. Less than an hour earlier, two airliners had crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York, across the street from the Postal Service's Church Street Station. The Postal Service had a small office in one of the Trade Center towers. No postal workers were killed.

Then, the Trade Center towers collapsed about 40 minutes apart, cutting voice and data contact with 22 post offices in lower Manhattan.

Otto ordered the 1,300 computer system operators at Postal Service headquarters to set their systems on automatic and evacuate.

After evacuating the headquarters, Otto said he ordered Postal Service computer centers in San Mateo, Calif., and Minneapolis to make backup copies of all their data to be sent to a third computer center in Raleigh, N.C., in case it became necessary to operate the Postal Service from there.

At the same time, a security response team began notifying post offices nationwide to increase physical security and begin closely monitoring traffic on the Postal Service's nationwide data network.

Otto called for restoring communications through satellite links, an emergency network patching system that the Postal Service uses nationwide when lines are cut by contractors or damaged by storms. With so many post offices blacked out in New York, bandwidth over the satellite link had to be doubled, which took about an hour, he said.

Checks Are in the Mail

In the minutes after the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history, the National Finance Center in New Orleans went into its highest alert but continued operating its check- paying system for federal workers. "The checks are coming. We are actually running on or ahead of schedule," NFC director John Ortego said.

The facility is actually two buildings in one complex—a center run by the Agriculture Department and a second owned by NASA. The NASA facility was completely closed down, but the USDA center remained open under tight security. "We went to lockdown immediately," Ortego said.

Among security precautions, the facility increased its number of guards, closed driveways, banned visitors and would not accept mail. "Everything is being transmitted to the treasury in our normal cycle," he said. "My first concern was taking care of my people. We do believe in getting stuff out, but we do take care of our people."

NFC provides paychecks for 125 federal agencies and runs the Thrift Savings Plan for federal workers.

The Social Security Administration was largely unaffected by the terrorist attacks, but it has backup and disaster recovery plans in place to keep its systems running in case disaster hits.

Several field offices in the New York City area were without power and were evacuated, said Dean Mesterharm, deputy commissioner for systems at SSA. However, other local offices were able to pick up the slack, and the agency said it would send all Social Security checks on schedule.

SSA backs up all the data files in its main computer center in Baltimore on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, and the backups are transported on cartridges to a secure location. Daily, SSA backs up 150,000 individual files—such as beneficiary files and files located on the agency's regional and national networks—that are then sent to storage.

SSA runs backup tests throughout the year and annually performs a live test that involves moving its major applications to a backup site in New Jersey. The agency has two other backup sites waiting in the wings if there are problems with the New Jersey site.

"We are constantly testing the configuration at [our] backup sites," Mesterharm said. "All we have to know is [whether the] hardware and telecommunication hookups are sufficient to handle our situations." n William Matthews, Judi Hasson and Colleen O'Hara contributed to this story.Y2K redux

The threat of the Year 2000 crisis put agency officials on alert, and many scrambled to put contingency plans in place in case systems came crashing down. However, unless managers update those plans on an ongoing basis, the plans are useless in addressing other situations such as this month's terrorist attacks, observers say. Any agency that went through preparations for the Year 2000 date change should have a blueprint for a good disaster recovery program, said Dean Mesterharm, deputy commissioner for systems at the Social Security Administration.

"However, all these systems are in a state of flux, so you have to keep that updated and keep that tested." Without proper testing and updates, it would take less than a month before those plans are outdated, he said.

Roger Baker, former chief information officer of the Commerce Department, agrees. "If you haven't actively been managing it since Y2K," then agency Year 2000 preparations will not help agencies recover from current disasters. "They have to be worked on and tested all the time," Baker said. "Y2K stuff has a half-life of three months."

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