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Politics

Trump appointee who downsized counter-terrorism efforts will resign

James F. McDonnell
James F. McDonnell on Capitol Hill in 2017.
(Homeland Security Department)

James F. McDonnell, a presidential appointee who over the last two years downsized the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to prevent terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, has agreed to resign.

McDonnell’s resignation, department sources said, comes at the request of acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and would become effective at noon on Thursday, according to an email McDonnell sent his staff at 12:57 p.m. EDT on Wednesday.

McDonnell’s seven-sentence memo did not provide a reason for his resignation, saying only it was “time for a new leadership team to take things to the next level.” When reached Monday morning by telephone, McDonnell said: “I don’t have any comment. Thanks for calling.”

Press aides at the department did not answer written questions about the matter. A spokesman for McAleenan, Victor Brabble, said Monday afternoon by email that Homeland Security would provide a statement “as quickly as we can.”

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President Trump appointed McDonnell to posts in 2017 and 2018 at Homeland Security, where he has led the department’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office and its predecessor, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office.

McDonnell has faced scrutiny from Republicans and Democrats in Congress in response to reports this year by the Los Angeles Times that brought to light his decisions — including his promotion of a scientifically disputed system for detecting airborne anthrax and other infectious agents that could be wielded in a biological attack.

McDonnell announced in November 2018 that he was aiming to install the new detection system nationwide within two years, even though the fluorescent “trigger” technology underlying it had failed repeatedly in testing sponsored by Homeland Security’s scientific staff.

On July 18, The Times also reported that McDonnell had directed the scaling back or elimination of multiple anti-terrorism programs at Homeland Security, which has primary domestic responsibility for helping authorities detect and block WMD-related threats. 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.

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Among other 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.

The department’s International Cooperation Division also has been disbanded by McDonnell. It had worked closely with foreign counterparts and the United Nations-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency to track and stop the smuggling of dangerous nuclear materials overseas.

A statement provided to The Times on July 15 by McDonnell’s spokeswoman said that the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office was “focused on preventing WMD terrorism by working with federal, state, and local partners across the nation.” The statement also said that “some programs were realigned or restructured to better address threats, remove bureaucratic redundancy, and fully align with [Trump’s] National Security Strategy.”

McDonnell’s decision-making has sparked widespread upheaval among Homeland Security staff specialists. As of mid-2019, more than 100 scientists and policy experts specializing in radiological and nuclear threats had been reassigned or left to take jobs unrelated to their expertise, The Times found, undermining the department’s ability to protect the nation from devastating attacks.

The rock-bottom morale within the offices that McDonnell has led may also have influenced McAleenan’s decision to seek his ouster.

The annual government-wide Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, or “FEVS,” sponsored by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, found last year that the McDonnell-led Domestic Nuclear Detection Office ranked last – No. 415 – among similar “subcomponent” offices.

The most recent survey results were conveyed privately to senior Homeland Security officials in September and are soon to be made public. According to interviews this month with department officials who have seen those latest results, morale in McDonnell’s newly formed Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office has remained dismal.

On Sept. 24, McAleenan appeared to signal that such negative results might have consequences. In a memo to Homeland Security staff, McAleenan wrote:

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“As I pledged when the FEVS launched in May [2019], the DHS leadership team will listen closely and follow through on the feedback you have given us. Your voice will be heard.”

The findings of low morale were not limited to the consecutive government-wide studies. Early this year, the office of then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen launched an in-depth, “workplace climate assessment” to elicit opinions about McDonnell’s leadership from present and recent employees.

The results of that special, previously unscheduled assessment were presented in May to Nielsen’s successor — McAleenan. The department has yet to release that information publicly.


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