Newly confirmed DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who was sworn in Wednesday, said the goal of the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office will be to “elevate and streamline DHS efforts to prevent terrorists and other national security threat actors from using harmful agents, such as chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear material and devices to harm Americans and U.S. interests.”
The CWMD office will be led by James F. McDonnell, a former Navy officer appointed by President Trump last summer to head DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office.
In a statement Thursday, Nielsen said McDonnell will oversee a consolidation of the 240,000-employee agency’s efforts to plan for and protect the nation from major attacks.
“The United States faces rising danger from terrorist groups and rogue nation states,” Nielsen said.
“That’s why DHS is moving towards a more integrated approach,” she added. “As terrorism evolves, we must stay ahead of the enemy and the establishment of this office is an important part of our efforts to do so.”
Several of the 22 sub-agencies at DHS are central to U.S. counterterrorism efforts, including the Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Nielsen, who has a background in cybersecurity and disaster preparation, was picked for the job by White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who was DHS secretary from January to July. Nielsen worked as Kelly’s chief of staff at DHS and then as his deputy at the White House.
Kelly stood beside her as she took the oath of office in a White House ceremony Wednesday.
On Tuesday, senators voted 67 to 32 confirming Nielsen as the sixth DHS secretary. The agency was created in the aftermath of 9/11.
In its statement Thursday, DHS cited intelligence indicating terrorist groups continue to seek weapons of mass destruction, while using “battlefield environments” to test them. The groups may be seeking to deploy those tactics “in ways we have not seen previously,” the statement added.
Although DHS did not mention specific threats, U.S. lawmakers have increasingly raised concern about the ability of would-be terrorists to arm aerial drones with explosives or other weapons. Inexpensive drones have been deployed widely and lethally by Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq.
The new DHS office will centralize the agency’s efforts to protect the country against the potential use of a nuclear device or other powerful weapon, according to Thursday’s announcement.
“Certain weapons of mass destruction, once viewed as out-of-reach for all but nation states, are now closer to being attained by non-state actors,” the DHS statement said. “A terrorist attack using such a weapon against the United States would have a profound and potentially catastrophic impact on our nation and the world.”