Why we should save DHS' biodefense, chemical threat centers from proposed Trump budget cuts

Threats from chemical and biological agents—known and yet unknown synthetic variations—are real, growing in potential and consequence, and becoming more attractive to terrorist organizations. As law enforcement organizations around the world make it more difficult to acquire materials to make explosives and gain access to quantities of firearms, chemical agents and eventually, biological agents will become the terror weapons of choice.

The anthrax letters of 2001 heightened domestic awareness of the threats posed to civilian populations by biological agents. Similarly, when the Ebola virus appeared in the U. S. in December 2014, the president created an “Ebola Czar” to lead the national response to this horrific disease.

Reactions to each of these events revealed the fear and panic created by biological agents.

Use of the nerve agent VX by Kim Jong Un against his half-brother, Kim Jong Il in a crowded Malaysian airport showed the ease with which a targeted chemical attack can occur.

Chemical attacks against civilian populations in Syria as well as suspected use of chemical weapons by ISIS as they retreated from Mosul show that chemical weapons are spread far and wide across the world and are readily available to state and non-state actors intending to do harm to defenseless individuals and populations.

Recently, researchers at the University of Alberta announced the artificial synthesis of horse pox, a close relative of small pox.  A number of prestigious scientific journals have refused to publish the details of this accomplishment for fear that if a step-by-step procedure were to become available, those with skills in this technology could easily produce the human small pox virus and unleash this terror on an unsuspecting world population. 

After the attacks of 9/11, the U. S. government recognized that defensive measures had to be implemented and maintained to protect civilians from these methods of terror attack.  To this end, Congress and President George W. Bush created a dedicated organization and facilities within the Department of Homeland Security to work closely with law enforcement and the intelligence community to identify growing threats, develop technologies to detect threats and support first responders if the unthinkable ever happened.

In addition to establishing a specialized federal and contractor workforce in chemical and biological defense technology development, two unique facilities, the National Biodefense Analysis & Countermeasures Center (NBACC) and Chemical Security Analysis Center (CSAC), were approved and funded by Congress.  Each of these facilities is recognized within the U. S. as the nation’s focal points for biological and chemical defense awareness and response. 

These centers not only support many domestic government agencies at the federal, state and local levels but also work closely with international partners in thwarting potential terrorists from using chemical and biological warfare agents.  There is widespread agreement that the DHS capabilities in chemical and biological defense science and technology are unique and needed to provide a foundation for this critical area of national security.

When considering the growing threat environment from chemical and biological agents, it is difficult to understand the Trump administration’s decision to drastically cut investments in both programs and infrastructure dedicated to safeguarding the American civilian population in this threat area.

The president’s budget for fiscal 2018 will close the NBACC and CSAC and drastically reduce investments in next generation technologies for detection and response to attacks from chemical and biological agents. 

Public statements from DHS leadership make clear that the administration is willing to assume more risk from this form of terrorist attack and make the erroneous assumption that closure of unique facilities will be covered by other government agencies while the private sector will invest in specialized technologies without government funding.

Make no mistake, the country and world is entering a period of high risk with potentially devastating consequences.  Nation states hostile to America possess threat materials and may have already provided them to terrorist organizations willing to use them against us. 

If used, our ability to detect and respond is far from adequate.  Few non-scientists appreciate the complexity of this mission area and understand the work that remains to be done to safeguard our major population centers.

The proposed budget cuts guarantee that terrorist groups and select hostile countries will have a tremendous advantage over the U. S. in a short period of time.

The DHS budget is one of only two federal agencies proposed for increases beginning next fiscal year yet there will be major reductions to chemical-biological defense technology investments.

Everyone paying attention to national politics understands the administration’s goal to meet campaign promises. These promises can be kept without jeopardizing the safety, health and well-being of the country’s population. 

Comparatively small redistributions in the president’s budget could save critical laboratories and invest in future technical capabilities essential to our security.

We strongly urge Congress and the Trump administration to reconsider the proposed budget and restore essential DHS programs and laboratories.

About the Authors

Reggie Brothers is a principal at the Chertoff Group and is a former undersecretary for science and technology at the Homeland Security Department.

Ashley Gierlach is a strategy analyst at the Chertoff Group.

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