Recent attacks using chemical agents abroad have sparked concerns about potential similar attacks occurring in the United States. What is the Department of Homeland Security doing about it?
The Department of Homeland Security manages several programs and activities designed to prevent and protect against domestic attacks using chemical agents. Some DHS components have programs that focus on chemical defense, such as the Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) chemical hazard characterization. Others have chemical defense responsibilities as part of their broader missions, such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which interdicts chemical agents at the border. DHS recently consolidated some chemical defense programs and activities into a new Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office.
However, the Government Accountability Office found and DHS officials acknowledged that DHS has not fully integrated and coordinated its chemical defense programs and activities.
Several components—including CBP, U.S. Coast Guard, the Office of Health Affairs, and S&T—have conducted similar activities, such as acquiring chemical detectors or assisting local jurisdictions with preparedness, separately, without DHS-wide direction and coordination. As components carry out chemical defense activities to meet mission needs, GAO found a risk that DHS may miss an opportunity to leverage resources and share information that could lead to greater effectiveness addressing chemical threats.
GAO said it is too early to tell the extent to which the new CWMD Office will enhance the integration of DHS’s chemical defense programs and activities. Given the breadth of DHS’s chemical defense responsibilities, a strategy and implementation plan would help the CWMD Office (1) mitigate the risk of fragmentation among DHS programs and activities, and (2) establish goals and identify resources to achieve these goals, consistent with the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010. This would also be consistent with a 2012 DHS effort, since abandoned, to develop a strategy and implementation plan for all chemical defense activities, from prevention to recovery. DHS officials stated the 2012 effort was not completed because of leadership changes and competing priorities.
GAO ultimately recommended that the Assistant Secretary for the CWMD Office develop a strategy and implementation plan to help DHS guide, support, integrate, and coordinate chemical defense programs and activities. DHS concurred with the recommendation and identified actions to address it.