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Staff Countering Nation’s Biggest Threats Suffer from Low Morale, Report Finds

July 19, 2021 by Reece Nations

WASHINGTON — Government employees tasked with detecting and countering the threat posed to the nation by weapons of mass destruction continue to suffer from low morale and ambivalence about their mission, a new government report shows.

The report from the Government Accountability Office is a follow up to an April 2016 evaluation that looked at consolidating chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear security programs under the single umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction office.

Established just 18 months later, the office was intended to reorganize and streamline the Department of Homeland Security’s core weapons of mass destruction defense programs.

“The [CWMD] office manages programs intended to enhance the United States’ ability to detect, deter, and defend against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats,” Christopher Currie, director of the GAO of Homeland Security and Justice team, said in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery. 

“These programs include partnerships with non-federal governments designed to address the risk of nuclear and biological attacks in metropolitan areas and efforts to integrate and share information about those risks,” he said.

But morale and other employment related problems were only part of what was found wanting after the consolidation took place.

The deterrence of terrorist attacks that employ chemical, biological, or radiological material is significantly challenging as they often lack “overt warning signs” and limit the department’s opportunities for intervention, according to DHS officials.

GAO identified opportunities for improvement in the CWMD office’s biosurveillance, nuclear and radiological detection, and chemical defense programs. Initially, DHS grappled with defining the biosurveillance programs’ unique missions and acquiring suitable technologies to execute them.

Further, GAO also found that the CWMD office lacked explicit reasoning for suggested strategic alterations to the “Securing the Cities” program. This program is designed to enhance the nuclear detection capabilities of federal and nonfederal agencies in certain cities.

The GAO report found that DHS had not yet fully integrated and coordinated the programs and activities in regard to its chemical defense initiatives. By failing to do so, DHS risks “[missing] an opportunity to leverage resources and share information” with other key entities.

“Chemical attacks abroad and the threat of using chemical weapons against the West by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have raised concerns about the potential for chemical attacks occurring in the United States,” Currie said in his testimony before the House subcommittee.

“Additionally, clandestine attacks using aerosolized biological agents could be carried out in urban areas, at sporting events, at transportation hubs, or at indoor facilities like office buildings. The United States also faces a continuing threat that terrorists could smuggle in nuclear or radiological materials to use in a terrorist attack.”

Although the likelihood of such attacks occurring is relatively low, the text of the report states their consequences are potentially high. Accordingly, GAO has monitored DHS efforts to consolidate chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear security programs into the CWMD office since August 2016.

DHS’s initial plan in 2016 for the office’s consolidation did not follow key transformation practices, according to the GAO report. These practices included “dedicating an implementation team to manage the transformation process, soliciting employee views and gaining their ownership for the transformation, and establishing a communication strategy to create shared expectations and report on progress.”

The department concurred with the GAO recommendations for instituting the key transformation practices and notified Congress in October 2017 of its plans to determine where these practices were applicable. A leadership team was created in January 2018 to oversee the consolidation process and “at least 17 employee working groups” were instituted to collect employees’ perspectives on the reorganization.

Since September 2020, GAO continues to evaluate to what extent the CWMD office performs the undertakings of its predecessors, coordinates with associates and manages employees’ morale. GAO continually assesses the DHS programs through its periodic reports to Congress, but the department still has yet to fully implement the recommendations. 

DHS continues to follow the GAO plan to efficiently integrate and coordinate its fragmented chemical defense programs and activities, but it has yet to fully satisfy the complete set of recommendations issued by the accountability office. The CWMD office published its full implementation strategy in December 2019, but the plan is still in development and not expected to be completed until September of this year. 

“GAO made 16 recommendations designed to address the challenges discussed in this statement,” the text of the report read. “As of July 2021, DHS has taken steps to address some, but not all of them. Of the 16 recommendations GAO made, 10 remain open, and GAO continues to monitor DHS’s progress to implement them.”

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