Peters & Portman Bipartisan Bill to Help Protect Americans from Weapons of Mass Destruction and Improve Health Security at DHS Advances in Senate

WASHINGTON, DC – Bipartisan legislation authored by U.S. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Rob Portman (R-OH) to significantly enhance the federal government’s ability to detect, recognize, and evaluate threats from weapons of mass destruction has advanced in the Senate. The bill would reauthorize the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) office, which leads the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) efforts to safeguard the country from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. The legislation would also authorize the new Office of Health Security that ensures DHS can better address public health and medical-related security threats – including assisting with medical care in the event of potential attacks. The bill was advanced by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, where Peters serves as Chair and Portman serves as Ranking Member. It now moves to the full Senate for consideration.

“The federal government needs to have a comprehensive strategy to protect our nation from public health threats, including biological and chemical weapons, that can significantly harm our communities,” said Senator Peters. “This bipartisan bill will provide DHS with the necessary tools and resources to ensure our nation is prepared to respond to and recover from attacks using these kinds of weapons. I will continue urging my colleagues in the Senate to pass this legislation as soon as possible so we can not only bolster federal efforts to tackle these significant issues, but also ensure agencies working to combat these threats are more accountable to the American people.”

“The bipartisan Offices of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction and Health Security Act will authorize the strategic repositioning of the DHS Chief Medical Officer as head of the newly formulated DHS Office of Health Security to bolster oversight efforts of all medical, public health, and workforce safety of the Department while also performing a pivotal role in all health matters relating to DHS’s broad mission set,” said Senator Portman. “I’m pleased this legislation was passed by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee because it will reauthorize and strengthen the DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office with updated requirements, standards, and accountability measures to ensure our country is properly safeguarded from all chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats.”

Chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons have the potential to cause everything from mass casualties and incapacitation, to agricultural destruction, and other serious disruptions to our economic and national security. Biological agents, including anthrax and ricin weapons, have been used in attempts to attack Americans, including elected officials. Recent security threats have raised concerns that nuclear and radioactive materials could be stolen and used in a domestic attack. For example, in April 2019, a technician was arrested after stealing three radioactive devices from his workplace in Arizona. According to a court filing, the technician intended to release the radioactive materials at a shopping mall, but local police and the FBI arrested him before he could do so. The senators’ legislation will help ensure our federal government has a plan in place to not only prevent attacks from these weapons, but also to ensure DHS is properly structured to coordinate any necessary medical missions that might stem from a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attack.

The bipartisan Offices of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction and Health Security Act makes permanent the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office and Office of Health Security within DHS. The bill clarifies the office’s roles and responsibilities to address chemical and biological threats – including coordination with DHS components and state, local, Tribal, and territorial entities. The legislation also significantly expands congressional oversight of the CWMD office, including by requiring the office to submit a report to Congress every four years on the Department of Homeland Security’s strategy to counter weapons of mass destruction and other emerging threats. The bill also codifies responsibilities for the Office of Health Security, including oversight of all public health, medical, and workplace safety missions across DHS. The legislation will also support the Office of Health Security’s mission to ensure the safety and health of DHS personnel.

The legislation builds on Peters and Portman’s efforts to combat threats from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons. Peters and Portman convened a hearing earlier this year with health care and national security experts to examine the United States’ readiness to respond to biosecurity threats, such as bacteria, viruses, or toxins that can be used as weapons against humans, plants, or animals.