Portman, Peters Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Help Protect Americans from Weapons of Mass Destruction and Improve Health Security at DHS

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Gary Peters (D-MI), Ranking Member and Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, have introduced the bipartisan Offices of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction and Health Security Act to significantly enhance the federal government’s ability to detect, recognize, and evaluate threats from weapons of mass destruction, which include chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons. The bill would reauthorize the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) office, which leads the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) effort to safeguard the country from CBRN threats. The legislation would also authorize the new Office of Health Security (OHS) that ensures DHS can better address public health and medical related security threats across the Department – including assisting with medical care in the event of potential attacks from CBRN weapons. 

“I’m pleased to introduce this bipartisan legislation to 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,” said Senator Portman. “This bipartisan legislation 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. I urge my colleagues to join us in supporting this bipartisan legislation.” 

“Potential attacks from weapons of mass destruction, including biological and chemical weapons, are a serious threat and we must be prepared to prevent the serious harm these weapons can cause. That is why we must ensure DHS is equipped with the necessary tools and resources to foresee possible attacks and ensure our nation is prepared to respond to and recover from them,” said Senator Peters. “This bipartisan legislation will ensure our federal government can formulate a comprehensive strategy to protect all of our communities from weapons that can have catastrophic effects, as well as other public health threats. It will also ensure that the offices within DHS that are responsible for tackling these significant issues are more accountable to Congress and the American people.”  

CBRN 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. In particular, 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’ bipartisan 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 CBRN attack. 

The bipartisan Offices of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction and Health Security Act makes permanent the CWMD Office and OHS within DHS. The bill clarifies the roles and responsibilities of the CWMD office 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’s strategy to counter weapons of mass destruction and other emerging threats. The bill also codifies responsibilities for the OHS, including oversight of all public health, medical, and workplace safety missions across DHS. The legislation will also support OHS’ mission to ensure the safety and health of DHS personnel. 

The legislation builds on Portman and Peters’ efforts to combat threats from CBRN weapons. Portman and Peters 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.