Plans for a possible merger of 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 (see GSN, May 9).
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; the second focuses 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.
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 that 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.