The new Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, announced on Thursday the creation of an office specializing in “countering weapons of mass destruction.”
Nielsen said the new unit, known as the CWMD Office, will work to “elevate and streamline DHS efforts to prevent terrorists and other national security threat actors from using harmful agents, such as chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear material and devices to harm Americans and U.S. interests.”
“The United States faces rising danger from terrorist groups and rogue nation states. That’s why DHS is moving towards a more integrated approach. As terrorism evolves, we must stay ahead of the enemy and the establishment of this office is an important part of our efforts to do so,” she said.
“Intelligence analysis shows terrorist groups are actively pursuing WMD capabilities, are using battlefield environments to test them, and may be working to incorporate these methods into external operations in ways we have not seen previously,” the Department of Homeland Security noted.
“Certain weapons of mass destruction, once viewed as out-of-reach for all but nation-states, are now closer to being attained by non-state actors. A terrorist attack using such a weapon against the United States would have a profound and potentially catastrophic impact on our nation and the world,” the statement added.
“The CWMD office will be led by James F. McDonnell, a former Navy officer appointed by President Trump last summer to head DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office,” reports the Washington Post, which notes that Nielsen herself has a background in disaster preparedness, as well as cybersecurity.
The Post writes that the government has grown increasingly concerned about the use of inexpensive, readily-available drones as terrorist weapons, using techniques pioneered by the Islamic State on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.
In fact, this very threat was discussed on Thursday in a House subcommittee hearing on the creation of the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office. The Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications heard testimony that “drone delivery of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons” is one of the newest threats faced by DHS.
“We have credible evidence of an increase in terrorists wanting to use chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons against us. Certain WMD, weapons once thought impossible for non-state actors to acquire, are now getting into the hands of those who would seek to use them against us,” McDonnell said at the hearing.
William Bryan, acting undersecretary of the Science and Technology Directorate, said countering drones equipped to deploy toxic agents should be one of the highest priorities for the new CWMD Office. Bryan advised DHS to develop and test strategies for countering such an attack in real time. Among the toxic agents discussed at the hearing were chemical weapons of the type employed by the Assad regime in Syria, and weaponized bubonic plague, which the Islamic State was interested in developing.
Some resistance to the creation of the new CWMD office was expressed at the subcommittee hearing, including a complaint by Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) that DHS should not have implemented the reorganization without consulting Congress first.