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Cammack Opening Statement in Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Hearing

July 16, 2021

Cammack Opening Statement in Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Hearing

WASHINGTON, DC – Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL), Ranking Member of the Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Subcommittee, delivered the following opening statement in a subcommittee hearing entitled, “Examining the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office.”

Ranking Member Cammack’s Opening Statement (as prepared for delivery)

In less than two months, our nation will collectively mourn the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Following those attacks, the Department of Homeland Security was created to combat threats posed by al-Qaeda and other extremist and terrorist groups. However, in the last 20 years, the terrorist threat landscape has changed dramatically.

Terrorist groups and extremists have long strived to employ chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials in their attacks.

In 2001, anthrax attacks highlighted the grim reality of a bioweapon. The powder was delivered through the mail, ultimately killing five people, making ill 17, and shutting down much of the Capitol Complex.

In 2017, the Australian government disrupted a plot allegedly hatched by ISIS supporters that involved setting off a device to release toxic gas in an enclosed public space.

And even now, when we are finally looking at the down slope of the COVID-19 pandemic, questions have been raised as to the origins of a virus that crippled, not just the United States, but the entire world and cost more than 600,000 American lives.

It is imperative that we stand ready to counter these types of threats.

The Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD) was authorized in December of 2018 to elevate and streamline efforts to prevent terrorism using weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, CWMD has had its fair share of growing pains.

Media reporting in 2019 indicated that the CWMD office significantly scaled back or eliminated the programs specifically put in place to help protect the United States. According to reports, subject matter experts were removed from their areas of expertise, vital risk assessments were halted, and training exercises aimed at helping state and local officials were minimized.

Similarly, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued several reports highlighting the many shortfalls the Office has encountered through its various programs. I am happy that we will hear from them today.

For example, GAO recently found that CWMD has taken little action on assessing and working with cities participating in the Securing the Cities program on sustaining their detection capabilities. Securing the Cities aims at reducing the risk of a successful deployment of a radiological or nuclear weapon against major metropolitan areas in the United States. Without analyzing risks related to sustainment and working with cities to address these risks, radiological detection capabilities around the country could and will deteriorate.

GAO and DHS’s Office of Inspector General have both reported on the longstanding challenges that CWMD has faced with regard to its biodetection technologies and BioWatch Program – a system intended to detect biological agents and provide early warning in the event of a biological attack. Most recently, in March, the OIG reported that the system monitors and detects less than 50% of biological agents known to be threats because BioWatch has not updated its biological agent detection capabilities with their 2017 threat assessment results.

Additionally, in July of last year, DHS’s OIG reported that CWMD, although required under the Securing Our Agriculture and Food Act, “has limited awareness of DHS’ ongoing efforts and cannot ensure it is adequately prepared to respond to a terrorist attack against the Nation’s food, agriculture, or veterinary systems.” Considering the supply shortages we faced last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t imagine the consequences if our food and agricultural systems were attacked.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the low morale CWMD has faced since the office’s formation. In 2019, the CWMD Office was ranked dead last among like-sized agencies in the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work rankings. In 2020, while the Office made slight progress, it ranked 403 out of 411 agencies, only moving up a few slots.

A dedicated and motivated workforce is so important for the success of this office and these programs that maintain our nation’s readiness to detect, deter, and thwart a terrorist attack.

As I’ve highlighted in my opening statement, the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office has unfortunately hit many roadblocks since its creation. I am hopeful that this hearing will bring to light the underlying issues that have plagued CWMD’s success and that we may have a fruitful discussion that puts us on a positive path forward.

I thank Chairwoman Demings for holding this important hearing and I look forward to hearing from our witnesses.