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A Department of Homeland Security team focused on assessing the threat of weapons of mass destruction faces steep organizational and employee morale challenges just three years after its creation, a government watchdog said.
The Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office needs to improve its biodefense work and other key programs, Christopher Currie, director of homeland security and justice for the Government Accountability Office, told a House panel Friday.
The office ranked the lowest among DHS divisions in a 2019 employee morale report conducted by the Office of Personnel Management, with the department as a whole the lowest among similarly sized agencies. The GAO is studying “significant challenges” in the weapons office, and some lawmakers have proposed transferring some of its functions to other offices or agencies.
Despite the problems, lawmakers shouldn’t rush into mandating any major reorganization, DHS Acting Assistant Secretary Gary Rasicot told the panel.
“You know, there’s an old government saying, ‘When in doubt, reorganize,’” Rasicot said at the hearing. “That is not what we’re doing. We are learning as we move along, and we have to take advantage of what we learn.”
Currie and Rasicot testified before the Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, & Recovery. The office, created by DHS in 2017 and authorized by Congress the following year, aims to ensure the U.S. can detect and prevent chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats.
House appropriators have proposed $437 million for the office in fiscal 2022, $10 million more than the White House requested and $35 million more than the office’s current appropriation.
Rasicot, who leads the weapons office and its roughly 300 workers, acknowledged it’s experienced some growing pains since merging previous programs focused on nuclear detection and health affairs. DHS leaders are committed to making thoughtful changes driven by the office’s missions and employee input, he said.
Subcommittee chair Val Demings (D-Fla.) pressed the witnesses on how the committee should view proposals to move the department’s chief medical officer from the weapons office to the secretary’s office, or spin off the nuclear forensics operation to the Department of Energy, among others.
Currie said GAO doesn’t have a position on those specific ideas but cautioned that reorganizing can lead to additional problems without a “crystal clear” vision.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has asked Rasicot and the chief medical officer to offer options for where that position should fit within the department structure, informed by lessons learned amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The office is also moving ahead with nuclear forensics coordination, even as the Energy Department is receiving more funding for related research and development, Rasicot said.
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