Poll: Confidence in Anti-Terror Response Drops


Oct. 9, 2005 — -- In another sign of eroding public trust in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, confidence in the federal government's ability to respond to a terrorist attack unleashing nuclear or radioactive materials has fallen sharply in the hurricane's aftermath.

At the same time, there's a positive post-Katrina development: Many more Americans (albeit still a minority) now have their own meet-up plan should an emergency occur.

Overall, 52 percent in this ABC News poll do express confidence in the government's ability to respond effectively to a nuclear or radiological terrorist attack – but that's fallen from 78 percent in late August, likely a result of the troubled hurricane response.

In terms of their own preparation, 40 percent now say they have a plan for how family members will communicate, or where to meet, if there's a serious emergency. That's jumped from 26 percent in August. Katrina again seems a likely factor.

In another result relevant to the recent hurricanes, 55 percent think the area where they live could be evacuated in a timely fashion in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster. But 42 percent are not confident that could happen – and just two in 10 are "very" confident their area could be evacuated rapidly.

This poll, including a detailed look at Americans' preparedness and concerns about possible terrorist attacks, supports the ABC News series "Loose Nukes on Main Street: The New Terror Threat," airing Sunday, Oct. 9 to Friday, Oct. 14. The series focuses on the security of radiological materials – or the lack thereof. The bulk of this survey was conducted in August, with some questions repeated after the recent hurricanes.

Terrorism concerns overall are up from where they've been. Just under half, 49 percent, say the country is safer from terrorism than it was before Sept. 11, 2001, well down from its 2003 and 2004 levels. And 41 percent express confidence in the government's ability to prevent further attacks, a post-9/11 low (albeit barely).

If a terrorist attack using nuclear or radiological materials occurred in their area, fewer than three in 10 feel they'd know what to do. Among the rest, half say they wouldn't even know where to turn for information. And in such an attack, or one using chemical or biological weapons, nearly three-quarters think there'd be panic.

Public views seem to reflect a broad sense that "it won't happen to me." While two-thirds are worried about more major terrorist attacks, half as many are worried that they personally may be a victim, and just 8 percent are worried "a great deal" about it.

While those worries have been generally steady since shortly after the 9/11 attacks, confidence in the government's anti-terrorism efforts is down. In late August, before Katrina, 54 percent said the federal government should do more than it's currently doing to prevent another terrorist attack – a majority for the first time since 9/11.

Post-Katrina attitudes were critical of the government's disaster response, helping to push President Bush's job approval rating to a career low.

The survey finds particular concern about attacks unlike that on 9/11: While seven in 10 think the United States is doing enough to prevent airline hijackings, fewer than half think enough is being done to prevent car or suicide bombs, or to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear bomb materials or making a so-called "dirty bomb." And far fewer are very confident that nuclear materials here and abroad are being adequately protected.

Considering a range of nuclear materials, Americans are most confident that U.S. nuclear weapons are well-protected from terrorists. But while eight in 10 are confident that these are adequately kept away from terrorists, fewer, four in 10, are very confident of it.

Only a quarter are very confident that nuclear power plants are well-protected, and fewer still are very confident that research reactors and nuclear waste in transit are safe. Americans are least confident that nuclear materials in other countries, including former Soviet weapons, are being adequately protected from terrorists.

About half of Americans, 53 percent, feel they're prepared for a terrorist attack, with a significant difference between women (44 percent feel prepared) and men (62 percent). Some of that could be wishful thinking: Just about one in 10 say they're "very prepared," and indeed most lack some recommended preparedness items, particularly a supply of bottled water and face masks.

Among the recommendations listed at ready.gov, the Department of Homeland Security's Web site, are eight supplies to have on hand in case of a terrorist attack: a first aid kit, three gallons of drinking water and three days' worth of non-perishable food per person, a battery-powered radio, flashlight, face mask, heavyweight plastic bags, and duct tape.

Some of those are ubiquitous: Almost everyone has a flashlight with spare batteries at home, nearly nine in 10 have duct tape, and at least eight in 10 have food supplies, heavy garbage bags and first-aid kits. But fewer, about four in 10, have the recommended amount of bottled water, and just 15 percent have face masks at the ready. (Ready.gov notes that two to three layers of a cotton T-shirt, handkerchief or towel can be used in place of a face mask.)

All told, just 5 percent of Americans have all eight of these items on hand. Excluding face masks (since there's an alternative available), it's 21 percent. Excluding face masks and bottled water, it's 43 percent – still less than half the public.

Views of the government's anti-terrorism efforts have weakened across the political spectrum, with Democrats, Independents and Republicans alike more likely to say the country is less safe. Democrats are 23 points less likely to say the country is safer now than they were at the beginning of 2004, compared to a still-steep 18-point drop among independents and a nine-point drop among Republicans.

But the belief that the United States is doing all it can to prevent further terrorist attacks is down most steeply among Republicans (-18 points), followed by Independents (-13). It's fallen by eight points among Democrats, who nonetheless are still the most likely to say the country should be doing more.

While confidence in the federal government's ability to respond effectively to a nuclear or radiological attack is down steeply (with a very sharp partisan difference), faith in local entities has held steadier since Katrina (with much less partisanship). Seventy percent are confident in the ability of their local hospitals and health care officials to respond to this kind of attack; it was 76 percent in August. And 59 percent are confident in their local government and police, compared to 66 percent in August. Far fewer, however, are "very" confident of an effective response from any of these.

An effective response to this type of an attack may be crucial, since nearly three-quarters of Americans say most people they know would panic if a "dirty bomb" went off. Other kinds of attacks would also engender fear: Three-quarters think that panic would ensue in the case of a local chemical or biological attack; fewer but still a majority, 52 percent, say people would panic if a car bomb or suicide bomber struck in their area.

This ABC News poll was conducted by telephone Aug. 18-21, 2005, among a random national sample of 1,002 adults, with sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa., with some questions repeated in telephone interviews Sept. 28 - Oct. 2, 2005, among a random national sample of 1,014 adults, by ICR-International Communications Research of Media, Pa. Results have a three-point error margin.