The Department of Homeland Security, created to help safeguard the nation from terrorism, has faced criticism for years over its approach to tackling the ultimate fear: an attack on U.S. soil with weapons of mass destruction.
DHS’s efforts to stop nuclear, chemical and other mass-casualty attacks are scattershot and poorly coordinated, spread through an unwieldy department already difficult to manage, according to experts and some in Congress. Even DHS determined in an internal review that change was needed, congressional aides said.
That was in 2010. Now, five years later, DHS is pushing a reorganization it says will streamline anti-WMD efforts into a smooth, coordinated machine. Problem is, the new plan is coming under old criticism: that it actually leaves things uncoordinated at best.
DHS’s proposal, submitted to Congress earlier this year, would create a new chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives office, run by a new assistant secretary. It would fully subsume two of the three main DHS entities now focused on combating WMDs. But the third — the Chemical and Biological Defense Division of DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate — would mostly stay in place. That, critics fear, would leave the same problem that hampers DHS now: different offices competing for dollars and WMD projects.
“It’s nonsensical,” said Rick Nelson, former director of the homeland security and counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You need to have all these people located together. Doing it halfway will just create more problems. It will be disruptive.”
Added a senior DHS employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation for talking to the media: “If you don’t put chem-bio in there, the entire group, it’s a waste of time. What’s the sense of having a WMD directorate? It doesn’t make sense to any of us.”
DHS officials defended the plan, saying it would vastly improve a current WMD structure they described as far too diffuse. Six units at DHS headquarters in Washington work on some aspect of WMD programs, and the revamp would bring the two main ones — other than the Science and Technology Directorate — into the new WMD office. Those are DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which coordinates federal efforts to fight radiological and nuclear threats, and DHS’s Office of Health Affairs, which helps detect bio and chemical hazards and provides public health advice to DHS leaders.
“This reorganization…will inherently help make the nation safer. That’s what we are trying to do,” said one senior DHS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations. The official acknowledged the concerns about science and technology competing with the new WMD office but said management and other reforms put into place by DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson would guard against it. Johnson has won widespread praise for his efforts to fix DHS’s longstanding management problems, from some in Congress and also from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
“There were conscious decisions made in association with this, and regardless of the organizational structure we selected, there were going to be people who questioned it,” the DHS official said. “We’re ok with that.”
The dispute is about far more than the usual Washington bureaucratic musical chairs, given the urgent nature of the subject. Poor U.S. government coordination was widely considered a key reason the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were not stopped. And experts and members of Congress have been pointing to a renewed WMD threat against the U.S. homeland from terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.
The ultimate decision on whether to approve the revamp will be made by the Republican-controlled Congress. Congressional aides said that while they shared the concerns of some experts and DHS employees about the new plan, DHS officials had convinced them through intensive lobbying that it is a good start.
“At a minimum, we see a 75 percent reorganization and improvement as better than nothing,” said one aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because legislation on the reorganization has not yet been introduced in Congress.
The congressional aides were critical of DHS, however, for its slow response to a 2013 congressional directive to submit a review of the department’s WMD operations by Sept. 1 of that year. DHS officials did not brief Congress on their plan until December 2014, aides said, and submitted the report a few months later.
“They were incredibly late, and that was upsetting to us,” said the congressional aide, who added that the House homeland security committee would soon be preparing legislation that could make changes to DHS’s proposal.
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.), who co-chaired a hearing on the DHS plan in July, said in a statement that the pending legislation will likely not “rubber stamp DHS’s proposal.”
“The WMD threat is immense and DHS must have an effective means of addressing it,” he said. “We have to get this right. And that means finding a solution that addresses gaps and fixes what’s broken.”