Commentary – Homeland Defense & Security Information Analysis Center: Department of Homeland Security Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office

By DeeDee Bowers, Biodefense MS Student

The Homeland Defense & Security Information Analysis Center (HDIAC) hosted a webinar presented by Colonel Jeremiah Aeschleman, US Army, on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) new Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD). President Trump signed into law the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 2018 giving rise to the DHS CWMD office. The DHS CWMD Office was created to coordinate federal efforts to plan, detect, and protect against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats. DHS CWMD was founded on the motto “100% focus, 0% margin of error.” As Colonel Aeschleman pointed out, our enemies only have to be right once to have a devastating effect while CWMD protective measures must be constantly effective. It is with this mindset that the DHS CWMD Office set up a list of goals to achieve in Fiscal Years 2020-2024, including other entities such as WMD risk assessment offices and projects like Securing the Cities with which they collaborate. The following are some of the goals set by DHS CWMD.

The first goal is to “anticipate, identify, and access current and emerging WMD threats.” This goal is focused on the collection of intelligence from partners such as the National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC), the Radiation and Nuclear Terrorism Risk Assessment (RNTRA), the Biological Terrorism Risk Assessment (BTRA), and the Chemical Terrorism Risk Assessment (CTRA). The work done with the intelligence community is ad hoc.

The second goal for DHS CWMD presented by Colonel Aeschleman is to “strengthen detection and disruption of CBRN threats to the homeland.” This goal will be achieved in partnership with programs such as Securing the Cities (STC), BioWatch, Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), Mobile Detection Deployment Program (MDDP), and the National Targeting Center (NTC). These partnerships extend to state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments. SLTT partnerships help with operations such as large-scale radiological detection that directly communicate with local law enforcement for immediate notification and response in the affected areas. SLTT partnerships also allow for the CWMD Office to have a greater effect while still abiding by the Posse Comitatus Act (PCA). US Northern Command defines PCA as prohibiting the armed forces “from performing domestic law enforcement activities [such as] direct participation in a search, seizure, arrest, or other similar activity unless participation in such activity by such member is otherwise authorized by law.” By working with SLTT governments, the federal government trains personnel and provides equipment for the SLTT entities to monitor threats. The DHS CWMD office provides MX908 devices to law enforcement agencies such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The MX908 is a durable and portable high-pressure mass spectrometer for agencies such as CBP to use in the field to detect dangerous and life-threatening chemicals (e.g. Fentanyl). Lastly, the partnership with NTC provides information concerning ongoing behaviors using special algorithms. These algorithms determine baseline behaviors, human or otherwise, in order to monitor the environment and situational climates in order to recognize when an abnormal event is underway. When an abnormal event occurs, the appropriate entity or personnel is notified to respond.

The last goal of DHS CWMD highlighted by Colonel Aeschleman was to “synchronize homeland counter-WMD and health-security planning and execution.” This goal includes the partnerships with the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and Global Nuclear Detection Architecture (GNDA). The GNDA is designed as a deterrent to let enemies know the United States’ borders possess radiation monitoring and, if caught with prohibited radiological devices, there will be consequences. With the aforementioned goals followed by the DHS CWMD Office, they have had major accomplishments in 2020.

Despite being a new DHS office, in 2020, they have implemented enhanced screening at 15 airports for COVID-19 as well as worked with NBIC on early assessments of COVID-19. Programs such as the STC expanded to six new cities bringing the total up to 13 major cities with new technologies for CBRN detection. In the future, they intend on holding an exercise to place all mission essential tasks in good standing with quality control standards. Lastly, DHS CWMD has published its Countering Unmanned Systems Armed with WMD (CUS-WMD) Strategy. The publication is a framework to detect and strategize prevention of hostile actors possessing agricultural drones armed with CBRN weapons for easy dissemination. While the DHS CWMD office appears to place their talents in counterterrorism, they realize these may not be the only threats. Counterterrorism is threaded within the fabric of CWMD; however, they also focus on terrorist-styled attacks and nation state threats to protect the American people.

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