- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Department of Homeland Security is planning on creating a “one-stop shop” that would centralize weapons of mass destruction defense, a restricting the long delay of which, lawmakers say, has left the U.S. vulnerable to an attack.

The new chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear office would create “departmental unity” between the Office of Health Affairs, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and elements of the Science and Technology Directorate, said Reginald Brothers, DHS undersecretary for science and technology.

Federal authorities envision that the new office will be “a mission support office,” said Huban Gowadia, director of DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office.

The two department officials, along with Office of Health Affairs Assistant Secretary Kathryn Brinsfield, testified during a rare joint hearing of the two subcommittees of the House Homeland Security Committee — on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies, and on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications.

But lawmakers remain leery about the department’s ability to organize a cohesive plan to counter the weapons of mass destruction threat through several different offices. That plan seems unlikely to come to fruition quickly or efficiently, given the department’s track record, said Rep. John Ratcliffe, Texas Republican and chairman of the Cybersecurity subcommittee.

“In September of 2013, DHS was directed by Congress to undertake an in-depth review of its WMD programs,” he said. “The review also required recommendations to improve its organizational structure to be more effective. Unfortunately, the Committee only received this report less than a month prior to this hearing, meaning that it’s nearly two years late.”

Congressional documents show that Homeland Security Department discovered that its directorates would take leadership during a biochemical attack. A restructure plan should have taken form that year, but department shelved the idea “due to lack of leadership interest.”

Criticism of the department was high that year due to chemical and nuclear threats against the U.S. and its interests by terror groups, like al Qaeda. Those threats have evolved in recent years to include the ambitions of the Islamic State, which has called on its supporters living in America to attack U.S. citizens wherever they are and however they can.

A laptop retrieved from a Syria-based Islamic State hideout in 2014 was reportedly found to contain plans for weaponizing the bubonic plague and a document that discussed the advantages of using biological weapons – signs that the terror group’s ambitions are growing, said Rep. Martha McSally, Arizona Republican and chairwoman of the Emergency Preparedness subcommittee.

“Experts suggest that terrorist interest in utilizing chemical agents has increased,” she said. “In fact, reports indicate that ISIS may currently be conducting attacks using chemical agents in Syria and Iraq.”

Lawmaker concern over the department’s lackluster interest in streamlining its weapons of mass destruction defense plan has continued to spike in recent years. After the 2010 internal review, both the House’s Homeland Security and Appropriations committees launch their own reviews of that plan.

Congressional documents show that two years later, in 2012, department officials still did not have a clear entry point for weapons of mass destruction coordination with other agencies, “nor consistent representation at the table in the interagency community.”

Now, in 2015, that problem remains the same, said Rick Nelson, senior associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program. The Homeland Security Department has remained unable to keep up with the security efforts of its fellow government agencies, Mr. Nelson told lawmakers during the hearing.

“Not only does DHS continue to be the outlier with its fractured approach to [chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear] but it also, for unknown reasons, has resisted – or just simply failed to prioritize – efforts to correct the issue,” he said.

• Maggie Ybarra can be reached at mybarra@washingtontimes.com.

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