Homeland Security:

Actions Needed to Improve Response to Potential Terrorist Attacks and Natural Disasters Affecting Food and Agriculture

GAO-11-652: Published: Aug 19, 2011. Publicly Released: Sep 12, 2011.

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The President issued Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD) -9 in 2004 to establish a national policy to defend the food and agriculture systems against terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies. HSPD-9 assigns various emergency response and recovery responsibilities to the Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Health and Human Services (HHS), Homeland Security (DHS), and others. In addition, Emergency Support Function (ESF) -11 addresses the federal food and agriculture response during emergencies and is coordinated by USDA. GAO was asked to evaluate (1) the extent to which there is oversight of federal agencies' overall progress in implementing HSPD-9; (2) the steps USDA has taken to implement its HSPD-9 responsibilities for response and recovery and challenges, if any; and (3) the circumstances under which USDA has coordinated an ESF-11 response and challenges it faces, if any. GAO reviewed key documents; surveyed states; and interviewed agency, state, and industry officials.

There is no centralized coordination to oversee the federal government's overall progress implementing the nation's food and agriculture defense policy-- HSPD-9. At one time, the White House Homeland Security Council and DHS took steps to gather and coordinate information about agencies' efforts to implement HSPD-9, but no agency currently does so. Officials from the National Security Staff--which now supports the Homeland Security Council--told GAO that they will be looking for an opportunity to conduct an interagency review of HSPD-9, and DHS officials stated that Homeland Security Council leadership is important to ensure the success of their coordination efforts. Federal standards for internal control call for agencies to employ such activities as top-level review to help ensure that management's directives are carried out and to determine if agencies are effectively and efficiently using resources. Because there is no centralized coordination to oversee agencies' overall HSPD-9 efforts, the nation may not be assured that these crosscutting agency efforts are effective at reducing the vulnerability to, and impact of, major emergencies. USDA agencies have taken steps to implement the department's HSPD-9 response and recovery responsibilities. However, various challenges remain, such as critical research gaps, which could impede recovery from high-consequence plant diseases that could devastate the nation's production of economically important crops. Also, USDA does not have a department-wide strategy for setting its priorities and allocating resources for implementing its numerous HSPD-9 responsibilities. Without such a strategy, USDA cannot be assured that its agencies are making progress to align with departmental priorities and that its HSPD-9 responsibilities are met. Since 2007, USDA has coordinated the federal ESF-11 response for about 28 natural disasters, including hurricanes and floods. Although USDA and state officials GAO met with identified factors that contributed to the success of USDA's response--such as having a single USDA coordinator to facilitate communication during ESF-11 emergencies--they also identified some challenges. For example, federal agencies' responsibilities for disposing of animal carcasses following an emergency are unclear, which delayed previous disposal efforts and could pose a public health risk. Also, USDA has not consistently prepared after-action reports that summarize what went well and what needed improvement during an emergency response. Without preparing such reports for all ESF-11 responses, USDA managers may not have the necessary information to help ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. GAO's nine recommendations include that (1) DHS resume efforts to coordinate agencies' HSPD-9 implementation efforts, (2) USDA develop a department-wide strategy for implementing its HSPD-9 responsibilities, and (3) USDA ensure that after-action reports are completed. USDA, HHS, and DHS generally agreed with GAO's recommendations. The National Security Staff stated they agree that a review of HSPD-9 is appropriate and will look for an opportunity to do so.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the federal government is effectively implementing the nation's food and agriculture defense policy, the Secretary of Homeland Security should resume DHS's efforts to coordinate agencies' overall HSPD-9 implementation efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the federal government is effectively implementing the nation's food and agriculture defense policy, the Homeland Security Council should direct the National Security Staff to establish an interagency process that would provide oversight of agencies' implementation of HSPD-9.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Homeland Security Council

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the federal government is effectively implementing the nation's food and agriculture defense policy, the Homeland Security Council should direct the National Security Staff to encourage agencies to participate in and contribute information to DHS's efforts to coordinate agencies' implementation of HSPD-9.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Homeland Security Council

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To ensure the most effective use of resources and to resolve any confusion, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services should jointly determine on a periodic basis if there are appropriate opportunities for the National Veterinary Stockpile (NVS) to leverage Strategic National Stockpile mechanisms or infrastructure as directed by HSPD-9. If such opportunities exist, the two agencies should formally agree upon a process for the NVS to use the identified mechanisms and infrastructure.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To improve USDA's performance as ESF-11 coordinator and to address issues experienced by key parties, such as challenges with pet sheltering, the Secretary of Agriculture should develop a process for ensuring that (1) following all ESF-11 activations, after-action reports are consistently completed and shared with key parties involved in each activation; (2) the perspectives of key parties are incorporated in these reports; (3) any identified gaps or challenges are addressed through corrective actions; and (4) the completed after-action reports are used to provide a complete, accurate, and consistent count of ESF-11 activations over time, in turn producing sufficiently reliable data on ESF-11 activations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To ensure the most effective use of resources and to resolve any confusion, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services should jointly determine on a periodic basis if there are appropriate opportunities for the National Veterinary Stockpile (NVS) to leverage Strategic National Stockpile mechanisms or infrastructure as directed by HSPD-9. If such opportunities exist, the two agencies should formally agree upon a process for the NVS to use the identified mechanisms and infrastructure.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the nation is adequately prepared to recover from high-consequence plant diseases, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), in coordination with relevant USDA agencies, to develop and implement a documented, systematic process to track research gaps identified in the National Plant Disease Recovery System (NPDRS) recovery plans and monitor progress in filling these gaps.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the nation is adequately prepared to recover from high-consequence plant diseases, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of ARS, in coordination with relevant USDA agencies, to develop and implement a mechanism to ensure NPDRS recovery plans are shared with key state and federal plant health officials.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  9. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To ensure that USDA is fulfilling its responsibilities to protect the nation's food and agriculture systems, the Secretary of Agriculture should develop a department-wide strategy for implementing its HSPD-9 responsibilities. Such a strategy would include an overarching framework for setting priorities, as well as allocating resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  10. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To expedite response and recovery from major emergencies, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of DHS's Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA), in coordination with key agencies to provide guidance that clarifies the roles and responsibilities agencies will have regarding the disposal of animal carcasses in emergencies for which ESF-11 is activated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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