The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Thursday rolled out a new office that consolidates existing organizations that work to protect the U.S. against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats to establish a more holistic and unified approach to combat weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

“The United States faces rising danger from terrorist groups and rogue nation states who could use chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear agents to harm Americans, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, said in a statement. “That’s why DHS is moving towards a more integrated approach, bringing together intelligence, operations, interagency engagement, and international action. As terrorism evolves, we must stay ahead of the enemy and the establishment of this office is an important part of our efforts to do so.”

Kirstjen Nielsen being sworn  in as the new DHS Secretary on Dec. 6. Photo: DHS.
Kirstjen Nielsen being sworn in as the new DHS Secretary on Dec. 6. Photo: DHS.

Nielsen was sworn in as DHS secretary on Wednesday, one day after the Senate confirmed her.

The Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office brings together the entire Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), which develops and buys radiological and nuclear detection and identification equipment for DHS’ operating components, most of the Office of Health Affairs (OHA), which buys and operates the national biological threat monitoring system known as BioWatch, and helps federal and state and local governments prepare for chemical and biological attacks. DNDO has 144 personnel and OHA about 70 that will become part of the CWMD office.

The Chief Medical Officer, who resides within DHS, will still provide advice to the president and other federal executives as needed, James McDonnell, director of DNDO and acting assistant secretary for CWMD, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications on Thursday.

The consolidation, which took effect on Dec. 6, 60 days after then Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke notified Congress of its plans, also includes some non-research and development functions of the DHS Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate for integrated terrorism risk assessments and material threat assessments, and a limited number of personnel with WMD expertise that were part of the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans, and the Office of Operations Coordination.

Adding S&T’s threat assessment expertise to the new CWMD office will “result in a rigorous requirements development process” and “improve risk-informed strategy and policy development,” McDonnell and other senior DHS officials said in a joint statement for the subcommittee.

Rep. Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.), the subcommittee chairman, highlighted at the outset of the hearing to examine DHS’ efforts around CWMD, the evolving threats that the U.S. is facing. He mentioned the use of chemical and nerve agents by the Islamic State and Syrian government on the battlefield, and by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to assassinate his step-brother.

Donovan also pointed to reports that the Islamic State had plans for weaponizing bubonic plague, and cited North Koreas continued tests of nuclear weapons and missiles that could carry them.

McDonnell said that in addition to the diverse threats, information on how to develop various WMDs helps give non-state actors the means to develop these threats.

Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), ranking member on the subcommittee, said he is concerned that the reorganization is occurring without Congress authoring the changes. In 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that a 2015 proposal by the Obama administration to restructure DHS’ CBRN and Explosives efforts into a single office was top-down driven and lacked input from key staff, didn’t benefit from analysis of costs and benefits, and didn’t eliminate stovepipes.

McDonnell told the panel that creation of the CWMD Office follows months of discussions with internal and external stakeholders and said DHS is working on language for Congress to provide authorities for the new office. He also said that unlike the earlier proposed reorganization, the new alignment is more holistic and does eliminate the stovepipes between chemical, biological and nuclear know-how to provide more integrated operational support to the department’s components and other stakeholders.

McDonnell also said that the initial setup of the CWMD Office is strictly at the top leadership level for now, with the organizational structure to be further worked in the coming months based on input from staff and stakeholders. DNDO and OHA will continue to exist within the new office under McDonnell.

“The timeline of this full integration is contingent upon Congress passing authorizing legislation,” a DHS spokeswoman told Defense Daily via an email response to questions.

DHS has already taken steps to improve the integration of its WMD capabilities across the department. McDonnell said that DNDO and OHA recently embedded a team of WMD experts in the National Targeting Center, which is managed by Customs and Border Protection, which gathers and shares threat information in the trade and transportation space with other law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

DHS is also moving forward in its CWMD efforts in the area of prevention, not just detection near the goal line, McDonnell said.

“We plan to work through the DHS Joint Task Forces and others to push out capabilities into known smuggling pathways,” he said. “We want to deploy into the environment where we know bad guys are operating, be less predictable, and find the threat before it reaches our borders.”

McDonnell said he supports recommendations of the bi-partisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense to replace the current BioWatch system, which is manually intensive and doesn’t provide the near-real time detection and warnings of a potential biological attack in a major urban area of the U.S.

The CWMD Office will develop and deploy a state-of-the-art bio-detection system that integrates with the communications backbone being deployed for the DNDO global nuclear detection architecture, McDonnell said.

“We will optimize the integration of the DNDO solution development process with the expertise that resides in the Office of Health Affairs,” he said.

DNDO’s budget is around $340 million and OHA’s is around $110 million. McDonnell said that integration of new bio-detection capabilities with the nuclear detection backbone will be done with existing resources.

Chris Currie, director for National Preparedness on GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice Team, said that unlike the previous attempt to set up a CBRNE Office, the creation of the CWMD office benefits from wider stakeholder engagement, and demonstrates an understanding that DHS needs consolidate its WMD efforts to “strengthen coordination and reduce fragmentation.”

Currie said GAO hasn’t scrutinized the planning for the new office the way it did in its report last year on the CBRNE office but said he is “cautiously optimistic” that DHS is on the right track here.