Homeland Security’s CWMD unit loses 10% of staff, faces continued attrition concerns

Attrition woes at the CWMD office come as it also grapples with some of the lowest employee engagement scores in the federal government.

The Department of Homeland Security component in charge of thwarting weapons of mass destruction from being used in the United States has lost 10% of its staff, as employees leave over uncertainty around the future of the office.

Mary Ellen Callahan, the director of the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) office, said the unit continues to face attrition concerns as Congress has yet to reauthorize the office long-term. The office’s authorization expired last December.

“The threat of termination for the office has created a great deal of uncertainty,” Callahan said during a House Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on emergency management and technology held today. “It also created a distraction in the office in the fall.”

Between October and February, CWMD lost 24 out of its approximately 240 employees, Callahan testified. The attrition comes as the office attempts to rebound from morale issues that have left it virtually at the bottom of federal employee engagement scores.

“This represents a loss over 300 person years of CWMD/[Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear] experience,” Callahan said of the departures in her written testimony. “Backfilling these critical vacancies should help morale, but a long-term or permanent reauthorization is paramount to attracting and retaining high-quality candidates.”

In December, the House passed a two-year extension for the CWMD office. The Senate has yet to advance a companion measure.

But Callahan said the short-term extension sets up the office for another reauthorization showdown in the near term, complicating efforts to recruit new staff.

“We are working quickly to replace them,” Callahan said. “But it would be difficult to recruit the talented and in demand workforce, to ask them to come and join when we have again, the potential of a threat a threat of termination two years hence.”

Through its “Securing the Cities” program and other initiatives, CWMD office works with state and local governments by providing training to first responders and other resources. Callahan said state and local partners have also expressed “anxiety” about the office being terminated.

“Several of them are working towards the 2026 World Cup, and when I was in Boston and in New York, recently, both of them asked about termination,” she said.

Subcommittee Chairman Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.) said lawmakers initially sought a seven-year extension for the CWMD office, but a score from the Congressional Budget Office forced them to shift to two-year reauthorization.

“We also have to be realistic about what we could actually as a committee and a subcommittee can get onto the floor and pass,” D’Esposito said. “So that’s why we’re at the two year number.”

The uncertainty around the office’s future also comes as Congress has yet to reauthorize a DHS chemical security program. The authority for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program lapsed last July. The program allowed DHS and CISA to regulate the security of more than 3,200 “high-risk” chemical facilities across the country.

“The end of CFATS authorization has, in my opinion, affected our chemical readiness with regard to identifying threats that would be in chemical facilities,” Callahan said. “CFATS and CWMD are siblings. And they work together closely and we are missing them in this whole of government thread.”

Meanwhile, the CWMD office is also playing a role in analyzing how artificial intelligence could pose threats to homeland security. Under President Joe Biden’s AI executive order, DHS is working with White House science advisors and the Department of Energy on an evaluation of “CBRN-specific risks of AI and how AI could be applied to mitigating CBRN threats,” Callahan testified.

“CWMD’s centralized role and subject matter expertise enable us to explore ways to leverage AI for our collective benefit while identifying novel CBRN risks to the homeland because of lower barriers to entry for malign actors,” she continued.

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