The head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office called the at-times embattled office “an unheralded gem” while praising senators’ reauthorization bill that “mandates that we will consult with our peers in the government, outside the government, academia, industry on a regular basis to understand what they’re seeing.”
Acting Assistant DHS Secretary for the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office Gary Rasicot, who led the office from October 2019 to July 2020 and again starting in January 2021, told senators that “we have made great strides in maturing this critical organization over the past three years” and he is “confident that CWMD is the right office at the right time to face the threats emerging in this mission space.”
“Though we have more work to do, I was pleased to see the improvement in employee engagement scores in CWMD’s most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results, which now are above the DHS average,” he said Tuesday at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.
Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.) noted that the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office “faced serious setbacks after its creation, including unsteady leadership, low morale, and high staff turnover, among other challenges,” but said he remains “optimistic that the forthcoming structural changes in the office and increased coordination between law enforcement and state, local, tribal, and territorial partners will dramatically bolster the office’s ability to tackle these challenges head-on.”
At the end of June, Peters and Ranking Member Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced the Offices of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction and Health Security Act to reauthorize the CWMD Office, which is set to expire next year, and authorize the new Office of Health Security announced this week by DHS with the goal to “unify the department’s medical, workforce health and safety, and public health functions under one organization.” The legislation would also require CWMD to submit a report on the office’s strategy to Congress every four years.
“We also look forward to continuing our close working relationship with our colleagues in the Office of Health Security as they provide expert medical and public health guidance to all of our efforts,” Rasicot added. “Once again, we are grateful to the committee for the bill to reauthorize CWMD. Given the potentially devastating nature of CBRN events, reauthorization is vital to ensure continuity of critical programs while supporting frontline operators and local communities.”
“Mr. Rasicot, as someone who works on these threats each and every day, I’d like to know what keeps you up at night,” Peters said. “Let the committee know that. And why is the existence of a CWMD office so important to counter these threats?”
Rasicot cited the need to “recognize chemical threats and then how to take immediate action to avoid injury,” and recognizing that “countering WMD takes specialized skills, training, and equipment.”
“You can’t get that overnight. You need to invest in that, you need to stay current in it. The threat is continuously evolving,” he said. “The department needs an office whose sole focus is to maintain this capability within the department and share that knowledge and capability with our state and local first responders. I believe CWMD is the right office to do that. I believe that we have the expertise, we have the skills, we have the capacity, and we have the knowledge, and we are getting much better.”
Rasicot says the office has “no recommended changes” to the reauthorization legislation, “and I think it really starts to strengthen the office” particularly by clarifying roles and responsibilities in the chemical and biological threat spaces. “It also helps that it’s permanent. It’s very hard to get out and do all this partnership with both our federal family, as well as a stake in locals, without that permanence to the office.”
He also praised the focus on collaboration and inclusion of an advisory council in the bill “because we have done this on an ad hoc basis, and I think a lot of that’s based on my personality, but I think we need to institutionalize that outreach to stakeholders and make it a requirement.”
Government Accountability Office Homeland Security and Justice Director Tina Sherman said that “the accountability measures and mechanisms that are in place in the bill that was introduced are … quite positive steps forward and can have a great impact in ensuring that the subset CWMD has taken and will take in the future will be aligned with its mission and with ensuring that, among other things, that engagement with state and local partners continues.”
DHS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Pritesh Gandhi is in charge of the new Office of Health Security. “Seemingly, every critical issue that DHS has engaged in over the last couple of years has had this strong public health and medical nexus,” he told senators. “Yet, our responses, while strong and robust in many respects, were ad hoc because we were working in a system that wasn’t designed for the kinds of threats that we have faced over the last couple of years.”
“The benefit of having faced those threats and dealt with them head-on is that there are a slew of lessons learned,” he said. “And the hope is to institutionalize those lessons learned so that we can, one, pioneer the best-in-class workforce health and safety programs that we need to; two, focus deeply on how we do coordination and oversight and standardization accountability all across the department; three, ensure that we’re centralizing the medical and public health safety data and public health data; and lastly, continue what has been a full-scale engagement with our state and local partners. Our ability to do all of that, to be engaged and have a strong ground game locally to do the coordination and standardization that’s required, and to lead on policy is predicated on having a strong central office that can speak with one voice.”
Gandhi said his office is “very focused on ensuring that we are expanding the clinical experts in our office who can provide counsel to CWMD and work hand in hand with our partners across the federal government to deal with that response.”
“Our goal here is to provide that counsel not just to our federal partners, if and when one of those attacks happen, but also to our state and local partners,” he added. “And we participate in exercises across the country, preparedness exercises, again, with our partners and then with those across the federal family.”