Portman Presses Administration Officials on Efforts to Safeguard Homeland from Biological Threats

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, pressed administration officials on their efforts to safeguard the homeland from biological threats at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing to examine weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs, and health security threats posed to our nation. 

Last week, Senators Portman and Gary Peters (D-MI), Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, introduced the bipartisan Offices of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction and Health Security Act to reauthorize and strengthen the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD) in order to detect, prevent, and safeguard the American people from WMD threats. The bill would provide updated accountability measures to address chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. It would also authorize the Department of Homeland Security Chief Medical Officer as head of the new Office of Health Security to bolster oversight efforts of all medical, public health, and workforce safety of the Department. 

In addition, Portman also pressed officials on their efforts to secure the southern border from biological threats and highlighted that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has reported a rise in individuals crossing the southern border who are on the terrorist watch list. Portman noted that already this fiscal year, 50 individuals on the terrorist watch list have been apprehended at the southern border, a significant rise from the single-digit encounters in previous years. 

A transcript of his questioning can be found below and a video can be found here.

Portman: “First of all, thanks for the help on the reauthorization bill. You all seem to like it, in part because you gave us a lot of input in writing it. So I guess that’s the way it should work. I do think that we need to look at it critically and be sure that it it is keeping up with the times. And we did just, again, have you all setup this medical office that I think is entirely consistent with what we would like to authorize, but we need to be sure that that’s the case. We have time to do that. This new Office of Health Security is going to perform a really important medical function for DHS, but also should continue to play a critical role as it relates to these full range of WMD threats. 

“I guess my major question is not so much about the reauthorization because you’ve answered those and thank you, but it’s about what’s happened since our last hearing as with regard to Biosecurity. Remember that at the last hearing we had some very disturbing information about what was going on with regard to the BioWatch Program, the need for an updated bio-detection capability. Our nation’s biosecurity preparedness was one of the things that stood out for me and I think other colleagues as an area for more work. So I guess my question, Mr. Rasicot, would be to you, given that the Biodefense for the 21st Century, the BD21 acquisition and the deployment of an updated bio-detection capability is still at least a few years away. And I want to hear from you, what is the timing on that? What actions is the CWMD office taking right now to address the shortcomings of the BioWatch program?” 

Gary Rasicot, Acting Assistant Secretary in the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security: “Thank you for that question, Senator. BioWatch provides over 30 U.S. jurisdictions with the capability to detect a biological terrorist attack in time to save lives. The technology it uses is proven. It’s reliable. The coordination exercises that we do with the state and locals often serve to help improve the coordination of their response. BioWatch itself, in January, I initiated a strategic review of all of our bio-surveillance programs. And in part based on that, we hear the feedback and we understand that and we want to do the job as well as we can do it. A part of that is some near-term improvements in BioWatch. The first of three of those improvements is a greater emphasis on stakeholder engagement and visiting with our local BioWatch coordinators. I think you’ve read in the GAO report that they get our people in the field meet with them all the time, but they were not hearing from the headquarters level, where the program is going and how we’re going to support them. So, in the fall last year, I signed out the first CWMD state and local engagement strategy, and in pursuit of the objectives outlined in that strategy, we’ve begun our local visits again and I was just in Columbus, Ohio, visiting with Cincinnati, Cleveland, and the Columbus BioWatch coordinators, visited the state lab there just to see how we’re doing in a post COVID environment, if we can say that. But as we move through COVID, how they’re doing and how our support is. 

“The other piece is we’re working with our federal partners, as well as the national labs, to validate are we looking for the right agents given the emerging threats? And lastly, and this is really based on all the feedback we’ve received from the stakeholders, I’m exploring ways that I can give more financial support to the exercise program in BioWatch. The state and locals are picking up a lot of the tab on that. I think we can do better. So we’re looking at that. 

“On the BD21 side, as part of that sort of strategic review, we are working with our partners at DHS’s Science and Technology Director to do a capabilities assessment of all current and planned capabilities that will address this sort of ever-changing mission and threat when it comes to bio-threats. And BD21 or bio-detection 21, is part of that effort. And that effort, as you’re aware, seeks to shorten the timeline to detection through use of technology, a concept of operations that continuously monitors the area in search of anomalies. In January, I notified the Undersecretary for Management, who oversees all of our major acquisitions, that we were doing this comprehensive analysis. In June, he directed the BD21 Program to focus only on Agent Agnostic Detector Solutions and to pursue technology maturation. And he also deferred all of our acquisition milestones until we complete that capability assessment. So that’s a lot of words, but what it means is we’re on hold there until we understand what the technology can provide, what other capabilities are out there. We are investing in the current BioWatch to ensure that it stays dynamic and responsive to emerging threats. 

“And the last piece, I want to thank the Committee again for including the Advisory Commission and the instructions to interact with the National Academy of Sciences on biosurveillance, because I think both of these interactions will be very helpful in charting our way forward.” 

Portman: “Well, let me just follow up briefly on that, and then I want to ask Dr. Gandhi a question. On the BD21 acquisition, you’re basically saying you’re on hold, so you don’t have a time frame of a few years or even several years because you don’t know. And I understand you want to have the right technology and you want to be able to respond to the ever-changing bio threats. But it seems to me it’s important for us to expand beyond those existing sites. And that was what we decided after the last hearing that we needed to move forward with the acquisition of this more comprehensive system. So I’d love to hear more, perhaps if you could respond in writing to what the time frame is. If we don’t set a time frame it seems to me we’re going to continue to have evolving technology and evolving threats. And again, improving our current system is important. I’m glad you’re doing that. So that would be my response to your comments. 

“With regard to Dr. Gandhi, one thing you said earlier that caught my attention. You said at the southwest border you’ve been busy, and you have lots of responsibilities. And one of them, of course, we’re talking about today, the WMD responsibility. Were you suggesting that at the southwest border that you have been engaged in those activities, or was that with regard to other health concerns at the border?” 

Pritesh Gandhi, M.D., MPH, Chief Medical Officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security: “Senator, the overwhelming majority of our work at the border has been related to border health issues, public health issues, infectious disease issues. We have not been involved on the WMD side at the southwest border.” 

Portman: “Okay, I appreciate that. As you know, we’ve had a large increase, relatively speaking, of the number of people who we find on the terror watch list who are coming across our southwest border. Already in this fiscal year, it’s over 50 individuals as an example, whereas in past years it’s been single digits. And so I do think we have an enhanced security threat to the southwest border from terrorist groups, some of whom might want to use some of this WMD weaponry. And so it is something that unfortunately we have to be more cognizant of. Are you doing any activities along the southwest border in relationship, for instance, to the bio-threat we just talked about?” 

Dr. Gandhi: “So we have done a number of things on the southwest border to be engaged with our local partners. As it relates to bio-threats, what we’ve learned over the last couple of years is that, and this is a recurring theme, that our best foot forward is to provide clinical expertise to our local partners so that, one, they are aware of what they need to be looking for as it relates to detection. And then two, clinical expertise to our partners in the field at CBP and elsewhere, CWMD, so that we can further enhance their response. We have engaged in that by expanding our regional footprint. When I first started, we had two doctors out in the field. We are now moving forward with the plan to align clinical experts in CBRN and other public health matters to regions across the country because what we’ve realized, and we’ll have a chance to talk about this, is that some of the biggest lessons learned from this pandemic is that our response is entirely predicated on our ability to stand that up at the local level.” 

Portman: “Dr. Ghandi, my time has expired, so I have to move on here. But I would like to follow up with you on this specific issue with the border. And are your regional offices providing some of that expertise to these border communities and to your own CBP? Because CBP has to deal with this on the border with regard to potential for threats that are WMD. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”