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Wednesday, December 6th, 2023

Senate Homeland Security committee hears of weapons of mass destruction risks, DHS security efforts

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At a hearing convened by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, lawmakers heard from federal officials about the risks posed by chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological weapons, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) efforts to counter them, and the creation of a new office therein.

The DHS is establishing the Office of Health Security to ensure it can address public health and medical-related security threats. Recently, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), chairman of the committee, also introduced the Offices of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction and Health Security Act (S. 4465), co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Robert Portman (R-OH). That bill was a major source of discussion during the hearing as well, for its efforts to clarify roles and responsibilities at the Offices of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction and Health Security at DHS. Peters and experts maintained this could help develop a strategy to counter chemical, biological, nuclear, radiological, and other public health threats.

“Chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological materials, sometimes shortened to CBRN, is an umbrella term to describe hazardous agents that can be weaponized and can cause everything from mass casualties and incapacitation to agricultural destruction,” Peters said during the hearing. “As technology has advanced, the threats posed by these weapons only continue to grow and give malicious actors more opportunities to cause significant harm.”

The hearing highlighted that recent security threats have raised concerns about the potential for nuclear and radioactive materials to be stolen and used in domestic attacks – and that some have already attempted this, though they have been stopped by law enforcement. Biological agents have already been used in the past – anthrax and ricin among them – to attack Americans.

During the hearing, Peters asked witnesses to elaborate on the danger posed by such weapons and the importance of countering weapons of mass destruction in countering such threats. The witnesses themselves stressed the importance Peters’ legislation could pose in codifying and permanently anchoring the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction office and Office of Health Security within DHS, with the added benefit of improving accountability and oversight overall.