The Republican and Democratic leaders of both the Senate and House Homeland Security committees are formally questioning why the Trump administration has cut programs intended to prevent terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction.
In a three-page letter, the congressional officials said their concerns were in response to a Times article published July 18 that revealed multiple anti-terrorism programs had been scaled back or eliminated since 2017 at the Department of Homeland Security. The article described the gutting of training and drills, including “red team” efforts to instruct federal, state and local officials on how to detect suitcase-sized nuclear devices or radioactive “dirty bombs” hidden on cargo ships.
In their letter, the officials said the report “raises serious concerns” about Homeland Security’s ability to protect against an attack using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials in the United States.
The bipartisan letter calls into question actions taken during the last two years by James F. McDonnell, an assistant Homeland Security secretary who was appointed by President Trump and who leads the department’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office.
The Senate and House officials are seeking McDonnell’s rationale for making the changes and are requesting department documents related to at least six programs no later than Sept. 19.
More specifically, the officials said they wanted “any assessments conducted by CWMD that led to or supported the realigning or restructuring of any CWMD program or activity.”
They also pressed McDonnell to schedule private briefings between his aides and Senate and House committee staffers.
The Aug. 30 letter was signed by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee; Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the most senior Democrat on the committee; Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee; and Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), the panel’s ranking Republican.
A news release from the Senate and House committees accompanying the letter said that Homeland Security “may not be fulfilling its mission to safeguard against” terrorists with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons “due to decisions made by the Administration to curtail the office’s programs.”
Asked for comment, a Homeland Security official said, “We look forward to continuing ongoing discussions with our congressional oversight committees.”
Before the Times article in July, a spokeswoman for McDonnell provided a statement to The Times, saying that some programs within the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office “were realigned or restructured to better address threats, remove bureaucratic redundancy, and fully align with [Trump’s] National Security Strategy.”
The committee leaders cited that statement in their letter and asked McDonnell to both “identify the programs that were ‘realigned or restructured’” and to “provide a detailed explanation supporting such changes.”
It is unusual, though not unprecedented, for both Republican and Democratic leaders of separate Senate and House committees to act in unison to seek accountability from the executive branch.
The emergence of the letter from the two Homeland Security committees was greeted optimistically by policy specialists who are accustomed to seeing partisan considerations thwart such efforts.
“Hopefully there will be some accountability,” said John Roth, who served as Homeland Security’s inspector general from 2014 to 2017. “I think it’s a good first step — that which gets paid attention to gets fixed.”
Elizabeth Hempowicz, director of public policy at the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, reacted similarly.
“It’s great to see bicameral and bipartisan oversight like this,” Hempowicz said. “When members of Congress work across the aisle and chambers to ask questions of the administration, they are more likely to receive a productive response.”
The Times article that prompted the letter identified multiple anti-terrorism programs that had been scaled back or eliminated since 2017 at Homeland Security, which has primary domestic responsibility for helping authorities detect and block WMD-related threats.
Among the programs affected was a unit that had helped lead up to 20 WMD-related training exercises each year with state and local authorities.
The unit participated in fewer than 10 such exercises last year and even fewer so far this year, according to internal Homeland Security documents.
And the department’s International Cooperation Division, which worked closely with foreign counterparts and a United Nations-affiliated agency to track and stop the smuggling of dangerous nuclear materials overseas, has been disbanded.
In addition to citing The Times’ article, the congressional letter also referred to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The report described McDonnell’s plans to make changes to Securing the Cities, a program intended to be Homeland Security’s last layer of defense against radiological or nuclear terrorism in major urban centers, including Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The letter echoed the GAO in saying that the changes were planned without “assessing if they would improve the program.”
The letter added: “These reports highlight potentially serious gaps between CWMD’s stated mission, its capabilities, and its actions.”
In a related development, GAO scientists have confirmed that they are opening an evaluation of McDonnell’s ongoing effort to install a new, nationwide system for detecting airborne anthrax or other infectious agents that terrorists might unleash, according to officials familiar with the matter.
The evaluation was requested Aug. 7 by bipartisan leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who cited a Feb. 15 Times report that revealed repeated failures in tests of the types of “trigger” devices to be placed in the new system, called BioDetection 21.