The stand up last week of a new office within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that consolidates support operations across the spectrum of threats from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) will be able to build on existing authorities intelligence analysis and capabilities development in the radiological and nuclear detection space and apply those to chemical and biological detection, a DHS official said on Wednesday.
The Office of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) consolidates the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), which does threat and gap analyses, development and acquisition of technologies, and operational support, and most of the Office of Health Affairs (OHA), which operates national biological detection and surveillance capabilities and works with state and local authorities to prepare for potential chemical and biological threats. The new office also incorporates small elements of the DHS policy office and directorate for Science and Technology.
“When OHA was created, it brought in the National Bio-Integration Center and the BioWatch program, but didn’t have a lot of infrastructure for the development of the capabilities to deliver to the operators,” James McDonnell, acting assistant secretary of the CWMD Office, said at a counter-terrorism discussion hosted by the Hudson Institute. “There’s a tremendous amount of technical expertise in both shops but in merging them together we actually have the ability to use the business model that already exists and broad authorities that literally go from intelligence analysis to deploying equipment and maintaining it throughout its life-cycle and apply that to chem, nuke and bio across the entire battlespace.”
McDonnell said his office will bring a risk-based approach to the potential chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats and support needs of the department and its stakeholders. McDonnell is also director of DNDO.
Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, who sat with McDonnell as part of a moderated discussion, said WMD threats are low in probability but high in consequence.
Duke said that the threat in the chemical and biological “areas” is increasing, adding that the ongoing decentralization of terrorist threat actors has reduced the lead times for law enforcement authorities to stop them before they take action, which means “we have to be agile and we have to be out there and we need to be ready.”
She also said that there is a “desire” by non-state actors to use chemical weapons “that are relatively easy to produce, probably followed by biological weapons.” Chemical and biological weapons are “a little bit more accessible than traditional” radiological and nuclear devices for these actors, Duke said.
To help refine its requirements around WMD needs, McDonnell said that DHS has created a requirements oversight council based on an existing process that DNDO has used for radiological and nuclear capability needs. The new council will meet next week for the first time with participation from operators from Customs and Border Protection, Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Transportation Security Administration.
The operators will drive the type of support they need and the CWMD Office will “sequence” that support, McDonnell said.
Duke said that new oversight council is part of the ongoing Unity of Effort initiative within DHS.