May 24, 2022

Opportunity to Reform the Department of Homeland Security’s Biodefense Operations and Governance

By Carrie Cordero and Asha M. George

The present moment is ripe to reform biodefense efforts concerning homeland security. First, the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine demonstrate both the actual harms and potentially devastating consequences of biological events. The sluggish initial U.S. response to the pandemic revealed the inadequacy of detection and mitigation measures embedded in federal government policies and practices. And given substantial debate regarding Russia’s biological weapons program and its suspected use of chemical weapons against its adversaries, the potential for the accidental or intentional release of biological agents exists in the present environment. Moreover, if Russia were to engage in biological warfare against Ukraine, that act could embolden other countries to develop and use such weapons in other conflicts.

Second, as a practical matter, despite political rhetoric surrounding border security and immigration issues, the 117th Congress is invested and engaged—often in a bipartisan manner—in efforts to improve homeland security and reform the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In the House of Representatives, the Committee on Homeland Security has voted out many bipartisan bills focused on improving homeland security and the department’s functioning. The House passed more than 35 bills in the past year covering a wide range of homeland security issues, such as terrorism, cybersecurity, transportation security, grantmaking, intelligence sharing and human trafficking. The House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing in June 2021 that featured testimony from experts at four think tanks (including one of the authors, Carrie Cordero) who have provided recommendations to update the department’s mission and improve oversight and accountability. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs has also been engaged, with over 50 bills introduced on similar issues, among them sustained legislative attention to emergency response and disaster management.

If Russia were to engage in biological warfare against Ukraine, that act could embolden other countries to develop and use such weapons in other conflicts.

These committees should include among these efforts attention to DHS’s role in biodefense. Biological threats can present naturally, accidentally or intentionally. In February, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing on Addressing Gaps in America’s Biosecurity Preparedness. All but one of the operational agencies within DHS carry some biodefense responsibilities. Asha George explained in congressional testimony at this hearing that these entities—the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency—all have operational, advisory or grantmaking responsibilities for biodefense. Among the DHS headquarters elements, the Science and Technology Directorate, the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD), and the Office of Operations Coordination also work to defend the homeland against biological threats. Unfortunately, these many contributions to national biodefense are neither coordinated nor overseen to ensure effectiveness and efficiency across the department.

Read the full article from Lawfare.

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