House bid to merge Homeland Security WMD offices draws cautious praise

Jeff Gentner/AP

Plans for a possible merger between two Homeland Security Department offices responsible for monitoring potential threats from weapons of mass destruction is eliciting cautious praise from observers who hope such a move would help address concerns that some of the department's key detection technologies are not useful.

In a little-noticed section of the legislative report that accompanies the fiscal 2013 homeland security spending bill, the House Appropriations Committee calls on DHS officials to develop a plan to consolidate the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and the Office of Health Affairs.

The first team is tasked with monitoring radiological and nuclear threats, with the second team focused on chemical and biological threats, among other responsibilities.

Under the House proposal, the department would have six months from the enactment of the legislation to develop the plan for a potential merger that would take place the following fiscal year.

Before changes are implemented, the Government Accountability Office would review the Homeland Security plan and assess “whether and how proposed changes would improve DHS coordination … on WMD defense issues,” the legislative report says.

Unlike at other government agencies, Homeland Security Department “WMD programs continue to be spread across many offices with duplicative and overlapping functions,” the report states. “There is confusion, for example, over which components are the ‘lead’ in certain incidents involving [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear] agents and also over which are responsible for research and development to detect those agents.

“As a result, DHS programs have failed to satisfactorily fulfill congressional and presidential mandates to develop robust capabilities to detect WMD threats aimed against U.S. interest,” the committee contended.

A Homeland Security Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the legislation.

The House panel argued that inside the department, coordination between the various offices responsible for WMD issues is “ad hoc and intermittent, with limited cooperation between certain offices and limited awareness of what each is doing in the WMD defense mission space.” As a result, Homeland Security views on WMD issues “are presented in divergent and sometimes conflicting ways in interagency meetings, impairing the Department’s cooperation” with other government agencies, the report reads.

“In light of historic budget cuts designed to restore America’s fiscal health, DHS must make use of limited resources as efficiently as possible to protect the homeland,” the committee said. “Responsible consolidations that make sense programmatically could improve DHS WMD defense programs and save taxpayer dollars.”

In the lawmakers’ view, the existence of separate offices for Domestic Nuclear Detection and Health Affairs is “particularly noteworthy.” They said that the two organizations “are charged with developing the core of the Department’s WMD detection capabilities” and “have faced similar dilemmas in developing better” detection technology.

In addition to providing cost savings, merging these two offices “could provide greater awareness and coordination within DHS and [other government agencies] by creating a more visible focal point to counter-WMD coordination and strategic planning,” the report states.

While the House Appropriations Committee approved the legislation by a 28-21 vote on May 16, the full chamber has yet to take up the measure. Assuming the GOP-controlled House approves the bill, it would then have to be reconciled with the Senate version, which the upper chamber’s Democrat-controlled Appropriations committee approved by a 27-3 vote on May 22. The Senate version contains no similar provision.

A Senate Appropriations Committee staffer told Global Security Newswire that lawmakers in the upper chamber have yet to endorse the House proposal to merge the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and the Office of Health Affairs. However, the aide said the recommendation that DHS officials have six months to study the issue -- followed by a Government Accountability Office review -- is “grounded and disciplined.”

“Are we going to [mandate a merger] in the fiscal 2013 bill? No,” the aide said, but added that the House lawmakers were calling for a “legitimate inquiry” on the matter. This aide and others spoke on condition of anonymity, lacking permission to discuss the issue publicly.

DHS officials themselves have looked in recent years at the possibility of merging various offices within the department that deal with WMD issues, said the Senate staffer. The department analyzed the matter while preparing to publish the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Homeland Security Review Report and Bottom-Up Review Report in 2010, but ultimately did not include any recommendations on the subject in either document, the staffer said.    

Some observers support the House proposal to study ways to consolidate WMD programs, but are skeptical of a potential merger between the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and Office of Health Affairs specifically.  

Retired Air Force Col. Randall Larsen, chief executive officer of the non-profit WMD Center, toldGSN that a better approach to consolidating DHS programs that deal with WMD issues would be to place the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office under the auspices of the DHS Science and Technology Office. Such a change might focus the nuclear detection office’s attention more heavily on the research and development of new nuclear detection technologies, rather than on efforts to deploy existing technology, he said.

Larsen contends that today’s DHS detection technology is inadequate. Rather than expend resources trying to use it, the department should instead focus on developing new technology, he said.

For example, a terrorist with an improvised nuclear device -- a crude weapon capable of catastrophic destruction -- could “shield it from our detectors with aluminum foil,” Larsen argues. “You don’t even need to use lead.”

To Larsen, it “doesn’t make a lot of sense” to merge the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office with the Office of Health Affairs. He noted that not all of the health office programs are related to WMD issues, such as its Workforce Health and Medical Support Division, which is focused largely on ensuring the occupational health of DHS employees.

Despite his reservations, Larsen said he is supportive of the House plan to study the issue, however.

Other experts say they support a potential merger between the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and the Office of Health Affairs, but are skeptical of a merger that would include the Science and Technology office.

Jeffrey Runge, who oversaw the Office of Health Affairs as DHS assistant secretary for health affairs and chief medical officer during the Bush administration, told GSN that it “makes a lot of sense” to combine the operational WMD programs under one unified team.

However, Runge said that including the Science and Technology Office in such a merger could have the negative impact of taking the department’s focus off the research and development of emerging technologies. He voiced concern about the possibility of deploying devices that may not yet be adequate.

“It’s a policy question -- should S&T be centralized or decentralized back into operational programs,” Runge said. “I favor the centralized approach.”

Runge pointed to BioWatch Generation 3 -- a DHS program aimed at developing devices that can detect biological threats in real time -- as an example of an initiative that has faced technical challenges.

One lesson he draws from that program is that the department should put more of an emphasis on developing better technologies rather than trying to use those that have not proven themselves to be effective. In some cases, initiatives like BioWatch Generation 3 that once were high priorities might have to be shelved, “as painful as it is,” said Runge.

The Senate Appropriations Committee placed restrictions on funds for BioWatch Generation 3 in its version of the Homeland Security fiscal 2013 spending bill, citing similar concerns.  

While the bill provides the $39.9 million that the Office of Health Affairs requested for the program, a “provision is included in the bill withholding [$28.5 million] from obligation for Generation 3 until the [Homeland Security] secretary certifies to the committee that the science used to develop the technology is sound and warrants operational testing and evaluation,” the report accompanying the Senate legislation says.

An “October 2011 report by the Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism Research Center determined that the usefulness of BioWatch is unclear,” the Senate committee said. “[The] next major phase of development should be undertaken only if the secretary determines that the system can reliably perform.

Therefore, requested funds are provided for performance testing and program management; however, funds for operational testing and evaluation shall not be obligated until the secretary certifies that it is prudent,” the report concludes.

Asked about the differing opinions regarding how to best consolidate the department’s WMD programs, a congressional aide familiar with the House plan said that while the focus is on a merger between the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and the Office of Health Affairs, the scope of the study is “not necessarily exclusive to just those two.”

In this vein, the House report calls on the department to “take a more holistic approach toward realignment by considering and describing any functions proposed to be transferred into the new Office from elsewhere in the Department to better align the WMD portfolio.” It also directs that “the secretary’s plan consider and detail the impacts of realigning certain functions outside of the new office,” including the Office of Health Affairs’ Workforce Health and Medical Support Division and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office’s research and development activities.

The congressional aide said that the report language calling for the merger study was the result of bipartisan discussions that involved both the House Appropriations Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee.

Correction: This story originally ran with the wrong byline. Douglas P. Guarino wrote it. 

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