DHS Revamps Health Office as Lawmakers Plan Broader Overhaul

  • Division has long faced low morale, program criticism
  • Senators working on bipartisan reauthorization bill

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The Department of Homeland Security said it’s reorganizing part of its troubled Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, but lawmakers are seeking further changes.

DHS announced Tuesday that its chief medical officer will spin off from the division and lead a new Office of Health Security, a change lawmakers had long sought to deal with concerns about DHS’s ability to address health threats to the US.

“Our Department must be prepared to adapt to an ever-expanding, dynamic, and complex public health threat landscape,” Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “The Office of Health Security will lead our efforts to meet that charge.”

The restructuring addresses only one of several issues lawmakers have raised with the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, which is charged with ensuring the US can detect and prevent chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats.

Low morale and questions about the effectiveness of key programs have plagued the office since its inception in 2017. Its authorization expires next year, and Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) are working on legislation (S. 4465) to reboot it.

“Congress must do its part in ensuring that we are better prepared against weapons of mass destruction and health security threats,” Peters said at a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday with DHS officials. The committee will mark up the office’s reauthorizing legislation in the coming weeks, Peters said.

Troubled Weapons of Mass Destruction Office Set for Overhaul

Photo: Ellen M. Gilmer/Bloomberg Government
The Department of Homeland Security logo at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C.

‘Getting Much Better’

Gary Rasicot, the acting head of the CWMD office, said he supports the bill and appreciates its effort to clarify the office’s responsibilities on chemical and biological threats.

The department is taking lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure it can coordinate logistics and craft policy in response to future health-related threats, Chief Medical Officer Pritesh Gandhi said during the Senate hearing. The legislation from Peters and Portman would formally authorize the health security office as an independent unit within DHS.

Tina Won Sherman, director of homeland security and justice for the Government Accountability Office, called the reauthorization legislation promising. GAO has flagged numerous problems within the office in recent years.

Low Morale at DHS Weapons Division Flagged for House Lawmakers

Rasicot acknowledged Tuesday that his office stumbled on some fronts after its creation but has since found its footing. He stressed to lawmakers that his office, which includes more than 200 employees, has the expertise to tackle emerging threats.

“We have the skills, we have the capacity, we have the knowledge, and we are getting much better,” Rasicot said.

Threat Detection

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and other committee members also pressed the DHS officials on the agency’s BioWatch program, which is designed to detect airborne biological agents but doesn’t monitor all the agents it’s designed to detect, according to GAO.

Rasicot defended the technology but said the office is doing a strategic review of DHS’s biosurveillance program and is working to improve coordination with state and local governments.

Both Rasicot and Gandhi declined to take a position when pressed by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on whether the government should declare fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction. The option has generated interest from policy experts and lawmakers in recent years.

Rasicot cautioned, however, that anyone weighing such a declaration should carefully consider how it would affect legitimate medical uses of fentanyl and whether the creation of overlapping jurisdictions would complicate counternarcotic efforts.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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