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Subcommittee Chairman D’Esposito Delivers Opening Statement in Hearing on Counting Weapons of Mass Destruction Office

March 20, 2024

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Today, House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Management and Technology Chairman Anthony D’Esposito (R-NY) delivered the following opening statement in a hearing to evaluate the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office.

Watch Subcommittee Chairman D’Esposito’s opening statement in a hearing entitled,“Securing our Nation from WMDs: A Review of the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office.”

As prepared for delivery:

Today the Subcommittee on Emergency Management and Technology will review the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD) and the Office of Health Security and examine their efforts to secure our Nation from WMDs. I’d like to welcome our witnesses. Thank you for your work to protect our Nation from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats. We look forward to hearing from each of you.

The Department of Homeland Security was created following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and brought together 22 disparate federal agencies to coordinate and streamline efforts to protect our homeland. Shortly after the Twin Towers collapsed, a series of letters laced with anthrax were sent to Congressional office buildings, news outlets, and postal facilities, killing 5 Americans and injuring 17. The 2001 anthrax attacks highlighted the means to which bad actors will go to terrorize innocent people and the need for U.S. investment in CBRN security and defense.

Twenty-three years later, the risk of biological terrorism and other weapons of mass destruction has not gone away. Recognizing the need to streamline and prioritize countering CBRN threats, the CWMD Office was established in 2017 and authorized by Congress and President Trump in 2018. The mission of the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office is to reduce vulnerability and protect American cities from a WMD attack by supporting operational partners on the ground.

For example, CWMD’s Securing the Cities Program (STC) has equipped state and local agencies with nearly 48,000 items of equipment with detection and deterrence capabilities to protect communities across the country from radiological threats. In October 2023, a Houston police officer discovered “dangerous levels of radiation” in a metal scrapyard after his STC-provided personal radiation detector (RPD) detected radiation during his commute to work. The hazardous material was identified and safely removed. These capabilities are critical for safeguarding our homeland from WMDs.

Last July, I attended the Securing the Cities annual conference, where emergency managers from across the country gathered for training and coordination. I was grateful to attend and proud of STC’s work to fortify a network of state, local, and federal partners that are committed to defending the United States from a potentially catastrophic nuclear or radiological attack.

In October, CWMD held a ChemPrep program in Nassau County to review local chemical incident-related concerns, gaps, and vulnerabilities, and to discuss potential opportunities to optimize local preparedness. I was very pleased with the local outreach and support to first responders on Long Island.

With numerous bad-actors and threats confronting our Nation, CWMD has provided U.S. Customs and Border Protection with Radiation Portal Monitors to scan cargo for potential radiological threats.

While the CWMD Office plays an essential role in equipping state and local partners with equipment and training to counter CBRN threats, there are opportunities to improve the effectiveness of this office. Although the Office was established to streamline internal DHS operations and coordination with states and localities, many re-organizations have taken place, and workplace morale has consistently received low rankings by CWMD Office personnel.

When the Department of Homeland Security Act was passed in 2002, Section 872 allowed the Secretary to reorganize, establish, or consolidate operations within the Department. In 2022, the Secretary used this authority to reallocate some health security and biosecurity functions to the newly created Office of Health Security (OHS), less than 5 years since the Office of Health Affairs was reorganized into CWMD. Such constant restructuring can be confusing and frustrating for employees and stakeholders. I’m looking forward to learning more about the Office of Health Security, the benefits of its move out of CWMD, and differentiating between the biodefense work of OHS with that of CWMD.

I am also eager to hear an update on CWMD’s BioWatch program, which is a monitoring system that collects and tests air samples for biological agents that may be used in a bioterrorism attack. This program has not kept pace with technological advancements since it was first created in response to the 2001 anthrax attacks and requires 12-36 hours before successfully verifying a biological agent and warning the public.

In 2019, DHS began a major acquisition program, Biological Detection for the Twenty First Century (BD-21), to move toward the next generation of national biodetection. BD-21 was intended to address some of BioWatch’s limitations, including significantly shortening its time-to-detect. However, it seems that BD-21 has been abandoned. The President’s Fiscal Year 2025 Budget Request refers to the program as ‘obsolete’ and states that CWMD will transition into a new “Environmental Biodetection (EBD) Capability Development and Maturation” project. I would like to understand how this new project will be different. Ultimately, I hope that CWMD is on a fast track to finally obtaining the biological detection technology that America needs.

Despite the obstacles the CWMD Office has faced, I believe that we should work together to remedy these challenges and to help the Office succeed in its mission of enabling operational partners in preventing WMDs from ever harming our homeland. That is also why I was proud to introduce H.R. 3224, a bill to extend the authorization of this Office, and I urge my colleagues in the Senate to take up this bill. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses on the opportunities and challenges confronting the CWMD Office, as well as the Office of Health Security. Thank you all for your work in this field.