(Updates with link to bill in second paragraph and additional reporting throughout.)
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A Department of Homeland Security office charged with preventing catastrophic threats from chemical and nuclear weapons would be revamped under new bipartisan legislation that responds to concerns about its organizational and morale challenges.
Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the top members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, unveiled a bill (S. 4465) Wednesday to reauthorize and reorganize DHS’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office.
The bill would also authorize the transfer of the DHS chief medical officer from the weapons division to a new centralized Office of Health Security.
The weapons office, established by DHS in 2017 and authorized by Congress the following year, aims to ensure the US can detect and prevent chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. Low morale among the office’s roughly 300 employees and complaints about the efficacy of some programs have plagued the office since its creation. Its current authorization is scheduled to end next year.
The reauthorization bill would ensure the government has a “comprehensive strategy” to protect communities from weapons with catastrophic effects, Peters said in a statement. “It will also ensure that the offices within DHS that are responsible for tackling these significant issues are more accountable to Congress and the American people,” he added.
Peters and Portman warned in a press release that threats the office monitors can wreak havoc in the US, causing mass casualties, agricultural destruction, and other disruptions to the economy and national security. They cited recent incidents, including the 2019 arrest of a technician for allegedly stealing radioactive devices from a worksite in Arizona.
The legislation would make the weapons office permanent and lock in its responsibilities on chemical and biological threats. The office would advise DHS on chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats, develop strategies to combat threats, identify gaps in DHS’s abilities to detect and deter attacks, and acquire technology to combat weapons of mass destruction.
The legislation would also permanently authorize DHS’s Office of Health Security, with the agency’s chief medical officer to be based there and report directly to the secretary.
The establishment of the office was years in the making, spurred by complaints that the medical officer’s placement in the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office rendered the position ineffective. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last year asked top agency officials to propose options for restructuring the role.
Congressional appropriators included a provision in the fiscal 2022 omnibus to allow the secretary to establish a new office to coordinate DHS medical and public health policies. The House’s fiscal 2023 homeland security appropriations bill funds the move. Mayorkas told lawmakers in April that DHS was working quickly on a reorganization.
Under the Senate proposal, the chief medical officer would double as the new health office’s assistant secretary and would oversee all DHS medical, public health, and workforce safety matters.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at email@example.com