The head of the DHS office tasked with helping protect communities from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks said he is taking constructive criticism of its shaky formative years to heart while vowing to improve the BioWatch detection program, expand outreach to localities, and integrate lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gary Rasicot, acting assistant secretary for the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Resource, and Recovery on Friday that his priorities for CWMD have been “one, to establish a safe, collaborative, and productive work environment; two, to ensure risk-based mission capability across the broad spectrum of threats; and three, to strengthen both our critical partnerships and support to DHS operating components and our full range of federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial partners.”
Rasicot previously served as the acting assistant secretary of CWMD from October 2019 to July of 2020. He returned this past January.
President Biden’s budget request for fiscal year 2022 devotes $427 million to CWMD’s 309 staff and the office’s programs.
“I would like to enhance our work on chemical. I think that’s an underserved area right now,” Rasicot said. “We’ve got a budget request asking for $3 million in chem. We’re also looking to put another $3.5 million into the [National Biosurveillance Integration Center]. Everybody wants their products, and I need to put more staff there to keep up with the demand.”
CWMD has also asked for $2.2 million to “be directly responsive to the state and locals who are asking for more exercises.” The request also funds the Securing the Cities program, which focuses on reducing the risk of a radiological/nuclear device being used by terrorists in a major metropolitan area.
“We are doing sustainment now. We heard the state and locals. We were giving them this fantastic equipment. But in some of the smaller cities, it’s tough to maintain that stuff. It’s high-tech stuff,” he said. “So we are going to start, in ’22, giving them the money to sustain that equipment, $1.5 million per city as they start, building to $2.5 million a year sustainment.”
Rasicot told lawmakers that the office, which has come under considerable scrutiny from Congress and the Government Accountability Office since its 2017 formation, has made “notable progress” over the past two years “in strengthening our programs” including CWMD flagship biodefense programs, “including near-term actions with BioWatch and a formal recapitalization acquisition program, known as BD21; expanding the Securing the Cities program; reinvigorating the DHS food, agriculture, and veterinary defense program; responding to the COVID-19 pandemic through biosurveillance and supporting CDC in implementing public health actions; strengthening the CWMD core nation role through a three-part series of exercises that included over 300 DHS federal, state, and local participants over the past several months.” Regular town halls have also been held with staff to improve morale, “provide input and share ownership in the organization’s strategic decision-making process.”
But “as with any new organization,” Rasicot added, “there’s certainly room for refinement and improvement.”
GAO Homeland Security and Justice Director Christopher Currie testified that “mission results cannot be separated from organizational health and employee morale, and you can’t have one without the other.”
Since 2012, GAO has reported on DHS’ challenges in implementing BioWatch, a system designed to detect an airborne biological attack, as well as “inherent limitations in the available technology and uncertainties with combining technologies for use in the domestic environment” with the BD21 program intended to replace BioWatch.
“For example, avoiding and reducing false alarms is still a difficult technical challenge that has to be overcome if DHS is to more quickly detect bio threats in these environments,” Currie said. “I also think this shows how hard it is to apply technologies for DHS in our homeland versus overseas in the warfighter or military environments.”
CWMD has also “struggled to develop an effective surveillance system to detect and share information on bio threats,” with the department’s NBIC struggling to “really fulfill its mandate and law and provide value to federal, state, and local partners.” DHS has completed the strategy for chemical security recommended by GAO in 2018, with an implementation plan coming in the next couple months, he added.
The Securing the Cities program has had challenges tracking program spending and performance along with program sustainment at the local level. “I know that they’ve made a lot of progress in this area, but there’s still more to be made,” Currie said.
“CWMD has to continue to implement best practices from past successful transformations in government, for example, focusing on efforts to continue better defining its mission and focusing on what it does best, communicate with internal and external stakeholders, and involve employees in all of these efforts,” he added.
Rasicot stressed that CWMD is “the link from national policy to state and locals through our programs, such as Securing the Cities and BioWatch and other programs where we have exceptional reach all the way down to the local level.”
“We are taking into account all of the GAO recommendations, all of the IG recommendations,” he said. “And we are trying, as best as possible, to incorporate them as we move forward.”
Currie said that CWMD’s reorganization underscored that “oftentimes it can create additional problems.”
“When something reorganizes, then they have to go through a transformation effort that can often take multiple years. And when that happens, the focus on the internal transformation can take away from some of the mission responsibilities they have outside, and some of the services they provide can decline,” he said. “So we’re not for or against those changes, but I think it can’t be looked at as the solution.”
The November 2019 re-establishment of the Food, Agriculture, and Veterinary Defense program within CWMD was cited by Rasicot as an accomplishment of the office, including entering a cooperative agreement with DHS S&T to direct the research and development work.
“We have increased the budget. In FY ’19, it was $800,000. In ’21, it was $2.4 million. In ’22, we’re requesting another $2.7 million to take it to $5.1 million. We have pushed out to both Agriculture and FDA. We meet with them all the time. Those were our primary partners in defending the nation against a high-consequence event in the food, ag, vet sector,” he said.
“I feel like we’ve been in a full-scale exercise over the past year on food, ag, vet as we’ve watched the impact of COVID through the meatpacking industry. We’ve read all about that,” Rasicot continued. “So what we did is we put together an industry-listening session and roundtable first week of June where we brought in all the major industry leaders using our system format for industry engagement through the agricultural sector and really tried to capture the lessons learned that they had over the last year in the COVID response to see how we can do things better. And as we adjust policy based on that, we want to make sure we have industry input on that because they’re living on the front lines.”
Asked about the office’s outreach and local engagement, the CWMD chief said it is his “intention over the next year to reach out to the chiefs of police, all the right organizations, to let them know what we are offering and what capabilities we can bring to them.”
“We’re pushing people out in the field. I’ve got folks in our regional medical operations centers to help with the public health in five locations across the country. We’ve got BioWatch in 30 jurisdictions across the country,” Rasicot said. “We’ve just expanded Securing the Cities to 13 major metropolitan areas across the country. So we’re out there, and we will do a better job in letting people know.”
“So are we still using that 1950s technology for BioWatch?” asked Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.).
“Yes. The sensors are there, and they are proven and reliable,” Rasicot replied. “The problem — what we do need to expand, and we’re working with the national labs based on the GAO reports and our own inspector general’s report to see how we can expand the number of agents.”
“I look forward to getting that report this fall. We’re also working with FBI, HHS and CDC and seeking their input in what agents we should be expanding to. So we’re looking to improve that system, and we’ve also looked to ask one of the national labs if are we in the right places to provide the most protection for the money to the American public. So we’re taking some actions here.”
Currie told lawmakers that one challenge in detecting CBRN agents is that there are “so many different surveillance efforts across agencies: DHS has them. CDC has it. DOD has surveillance efforts. And I don’t think these have been well integrated. In the DHS’s case, I don’t think their specific role in the surveillance space has been made as clear as it can be and well-integrated.”
“For example, DHS has struggled with getting data and metrics it needs from CDC and state and local public health departments to even provide surveillance information to the community that provides a benefit,” he added.
Currie emphasized that CWMD has “some incredible folks, and I think they work incredibly hard.”
“It sounds to me like they just want the support and the recognition of those things moving forward. So I’m cautiously optimistic that maybe they’re going in the right direction,” he said. “And we’ve seen this in the past at DHS, by the way. The Science & Technology directorate at DHS had some serious morale problems years ago, and they’ve worked really hard to do some of these same things. And now, their morale is some of the highest in the department. So it is possible to turn this around.”
Currie added that he believes CWMD is “absolutely capable of performing their mission with the resources they have and that they’re requesting.”