Assistant Secretary Mary Ellen Callahan told lawmakers that she led an “emotionally fraught” town hall on Wednesday.

Assistant Secretary Mary Ellen Callahan told lawmakers that she led an “emotionally fraught” town hall on Wednesday. Homeland Security Department

Biden administration pleads for WMD office’s salvation

Hundreds of employees are facing job elimination, leaving the 'sword of Damocles hanging over their head.'

A key Homeland Security Department office that detects and prepares for weapons of mass destruction will cease to exist in December unless Congress takes action, and the Biden administration is launching a full-throated campaign to save it. 

The Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction office within DHS is set to see its authorization expire Dec. 21, five years after Congress codified it. DHS officials are lobbying key lawmakers and issuing warnings to stakeholders and the media, explaining key trainings, detection equipment and funding will not be available if Congress fails to act. 

The office maintains an annual budget of $400 million and works closely with DHS components, as well as state and local law enforcement, to help them detect and prepare for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. It conducts large-scale procurements and has 56,000 personal radiological devices in the field that assist in detection, including 40,000 within DHS and 16,000 at state and local entities. It also maintains larger devices that go into trucks, SUVs, planes and boats that can detect any nuclear material in an area, which DHS deploys for major events like the Super Bowl or the upcoming Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. 

The devices, such as the 1,000 that go into backpacks for field officers, help DHS and its stakeholders push their perimeter farther out, department officials said on Thursday, so detection can take place a mile outside a stadium or parade route. 

CWMD buys the equipment in bulk so components and localities can purchase them at lower rates, and then deploys its experts to train officers on how to use them. The office employs more than 230 people, ranging from nuclear physicists to biological engineers to veterinarians, as well as 400 contractors. 

The jobs for those employees now hang in the balance. The office is currently engaging in contingency planning for its workforce in the event its authorization expires and is hopeful it can avoid any layoffs, according to Assistant Secretary Mary Ellen Callahan, who leads it. Callahan said DHS component heads have been instructed to leave vacant any position that a CWMD employee could fill and the department is hopeful it will be able to present three options to each affected worker at the same series and grade as their current roles. She noted it would become the largest management-directed reassignment DHS has ever done. 

“It's really complicated. It's really hard,” Callahan said, noting she led an “emotionally fraught” town hall on Wednesday. “People are anxious. They have a sword of Damocles hanging over their head.” 

CWMD has endured low morale since its 2018 founding, when, according to officials, offices with clashing cultures were brought together. In the most recent Best Places to Work in Federal Government rankings, as compiled by the Partnership for Public Service based on Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey data, the office ranked 430 out of 432 subcomponents. Callahan, who only entered her current role in August, said she was brought in to help make the workforce feel seen and heard. Her efforts have been undermined by the potential expiration of the office, however. 

“The specter of not having this office is taking an emotional toll on the staff,” Callahan said. “And it has been hard for them.”

So far, CWMD has seen an uptick in turnover primarily among its contractor workforce, where individuals are opting to work on another project rather than wait to see if the office’s authorization is extended. 

“I think the closer we get to December, with the uncertainty, the more we could lose some really talented individuals and groups,” Callahan said. 

CWMD officials have hosted or had conversations with members of the House Homeland Security Committee, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and appropriations committees in both chambers to try to move legislation that would keep the office open. Both homeland security panels have without much resistance approved bills to do so, but neither has received a floor vote. With the House still without a speaker, it remains paralyzed in its capacity to pass any legislation. 

Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, “is looking at all avenues to get this bill across the finish line and supports the crucial work of the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office,” according to a committee aide. 

An aide to Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who chairs the Senate homeland security panel, similarly said CWMD was "a critical program" and Peters was "working to find every path forward to ensure it's extended and doesn’t lapse."

In the meantime, Callahan is pushing the agency to continue its normal operations. CWMD officials are deploying to 22 events this month and are developing new technologies to advance weapon detection. It continues to have 400 of its BioWatch devices deployed throughout the country, which constantly collect air samples for any evidence of biological abnormalities. Jurisdictions such as Los Angeles and New York City have written letters and lobbied their members of Congress to save the office, noting its importance in helping them plan for and operate in big events. 

CWMD will likely be forced to send out employees to other DHS components before the Dec. 21 deadline if no resolution is reached before then. The office is being careful to avoid a lapse in service for any employees, so it will reassign them before that date. If the office is reauthorized after Dec. 21, it will have no mechanism to then bring them back without first recompeting the jobs. 

Callahan said the dissolution of CWMD would mark the first “prophylactic, defensive” office the government stood up in response to the September 11 attacks to be phased out, though she expressed optimism Congress will ultimately take action. 

“I don't think that we're going to do that because the office makes too much sense,” she said.