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Weapons of Mass Destruction office takes shape within the Dept. of Homeland Security

Subcommittee Chairman Dan Donovan, R- N.Y. /Photo: House Homeland Security Committee

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Lawmakers held a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday to discuss the implementation of a new office within the Department of Homeland Security dealing with weapons of mass destruction.

The new office within DHS will be called the “Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office.” The office has already begun the process of reorganizing and implementing some of the new changes of the consolidation to their current workflow.

The House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications expressed an interest in understanding more about the establishment of this new office.

Subcommittee Chairman Dan Donovan, R- N.Y., said the threat of weapons of mass destruction has changed and become more diverse.

“The scope of the threat has changed dramatically. It has become much more diverse and diffuse,” Donovan said. “We know that terrorist groups have long strived to employ chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials in their attacks.”

The congressman mentioned a number of increased attacks; including the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government involving mustard, Sarin and chlorine gas as well as a plot to release hydrogen sulfide uncovered by the Australian police and a laptop retrieved from ISIS in Syria in 2014 with plans for weaponized bubonic plague.

“As the world of threats becomes more complex, it is incumbent upon the Department of Homeland Security to assess whether or not it is optimally organized to best confront the variety of threats it is expected to counter,” Donovan said.

Ranking Member Congressman Donald Payne, D- N.J., felt strongly that the Department of Homeland Security should have consulted the committee before implementing the reorganization. He reminded the department that the DHS will soon no longer have the ability to make those changes under the section 872 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, as the committee has taken action to repeal section 872.

The section states that secretary of the department may “may establish, consolidate, alter, or discontinue organizational units within the Department.”

“I appreciate the congressional authorization process takes time, but it also has value. And this committee has proven itself to be willing to partner when DHS has wanted to reorganize,” Payne said. “DHS officials spoke in generalities about how reorganization advanced the then secretaries unity of effort initiative and created a center point of contact for stakeholders. Such vague explanations are little justification for setting a disrupt.”

Hearing Witness Assistant Secretary for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction and Director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security James F. McDonnell said that the department tried to remain conscientious of Congress' sensitives when evoking that section of the act.

“We knew the sensitivities on the hill relative to the use of that section of the homeland security act,” McDonnell said. “So, we really were very cautious in the approach and wanted it to be very limited so we could respect the legislative process in the ultimate reorganization.”

But Payne did not fully accept his remark.

“The constitution of this great nation was put in place for a reason. Congress has its role. And to continually circumvent this body that represents the American people it is very dangerous and a slippery slope,” Payne said.

Hearing Witness Director Emergency Management, National Preparedness, and Critical Infrastructure Protection for the U.S. Government Accountability Office Chris Currie said their office does not oppose or support the reorganization.

“The bottom line is the threat and mission need are clearly the most critical factor for this reorganization,” Currie said. “However, if there is not an honest recognition of the organizational and administrative challenges and a plan to address it. It will be way more difficult than it needs to be.”

Currie said that in the past the Department of Homeland Security had dismissed recommendations from the Government Accountability Office. However, he did say that this implementation did hold some promise.

“And clearly there are some promising things in this proposal that the previous one lacked. There seems to be a realistic acceptance of past problems that need to be solved,” Currie said. “Also, this effort looks to be driven from the components themselves as opposed to the top-down approach that was taken before from the other office of policy.”

Hearing Witness Acting Under Secretary Science and Technology Directorate William Bryan said they plan on working with the new office counter threats.

“Working together with CWMD we will apply our science and engineering excellence to counter the threat of weapons of mass destruction against the homeland,” Bryan said.

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