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Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction: DHS Could Improve Its Acquisition of Key Technology and Coordination with Partners

GAO-22-104498 Published: Apr 19, 2022. Publicly Released: Apr 19, 2022.
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Fast Facts

The Department of Homeland Security works with federal, state, and local partners to combat chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. As part of these efforts, DHS is replacing radiation portal monitors that scan cargo at U.S. ports. The new monitors were intended to reduce nuisance alarms from naturally occurring radiation in consumer goods—reducing unnecessary delays.

But, the new monitors have been delayed by more than 3 years, and those being tested have higher nuisance alarm rates than monitors currently in use at ports.

We recommended that DHS reassess its acquisition strategy for radiation portal monitors.

Radiation Portal Monitor at a Land Border Crossing

truck passing through a gate at a land border crossing

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What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD) continues to carry out functions of its predecessor offices. For example, CWMD continues to manage a program to acquire replacements for radiation portal monitors that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) operates at high-volume ports (see fig.). However, the new radiation portal monitors will be late to deploy and may not meet user needs. For example, CBP officials told GAO that tests of replacement monitors resulted in higher nuisance alarm rates than originally planned. Nuisance alarms result from naturally occurring radioactive materials in certain consumer goods, requiring CBP officers to conduct a secondary scan to determine that the source of the alarm is not a threat before a cargo container or vehicle can leave the port. Reducing such alarms is a key goal of the replacement program. By coordinating with CBP to reassess its current acquisition strategy, CWMD may help ensure an acceptable nuisance alarm rate, better positioning CBP to prevent radiological and nuclear threats without unduly delaying U.S. commerce.

Radiation Portal Monitor at a Land Port of Entry

Radiation Portal Monitor at a Land Port of Entry

The state and local partners GAO interviewed were generally satisfied with CWMD's coordination of technology acquisition and training but said CWMD could improve in other areas, such as communicating with and convening the partners. In September 2021, CWMD issued a strategy to engage its state and local partners, but the strategy does not specify how often CWMD will communicate with and convene partners in all threat areas. Specifying this will help CWMD and its partners be prepared to deter and respond to an attack.

CWMD used employee surveys and listening sessions to identify the root causes of morale problems. CWMD also introduced town hall meetings in which employees share how they help accomplish the agency's mission. Data from 2019 and 2020 federal employee workplace surveys indicate that CWMD improved in measures of employee engagement. GAO recommended in January 2021 that DHS strengthen its plans to enhance employee engagement, an actionable measure of morale, and continues to monitor DHS's response to these recommendations.

Why GAO Did This Study

Chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons have the potential to kill thousands of people. To enhance efforts to manage threats in these four areas, CWMD was established in statute in December 2018, reorganizing functions of predecessor offices in DHS. About a year later, CWMD ranked last in a review of best places to work in government.

GAO was asked to assess CWMD's ability to carry out its mission and serve federal, state, and local partners. This report (1) evaluates the extent to which CWMD continues to perform the functions of predecessor offices, (2) evaluates the extent to which CWMD has coordinated with state and local partners, and (3) describes CWMD's efforts to improve morale.

GAO reviewed strategic and implementation plans and employee surveys and interviewed CWMD officials about how the office has carried out its functions, coordinated with partners, and taken steps to improve morale. To obtain partners' views on CWMD's performance, GAO interviewed officials from other DHS components and federal agencies. GAO also selected a nongeneralizable sample of state and local partners from 15 jurisdictions based on their participation in CWMD programs covering the four threat areas.


GAO is making four recommendations, including that CWMD should reassess its current acquisition strategy for replacing radiation portal monitors and specify its plans for convening state and local partners. DHS agrees with the four recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office The Assistant Secretary for CWMD should coordinate with CBP to reassess its current acquisition strategy for replacement radiation portal monitors to ensure that the selected technology or technologies meet CBP's needs, including with respect to nuisance alarm rates. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
CWMD reassessed its acquisition strategy and decided not to pursue a second phase of the radiation portal monitor (RPM) acquisition that CWMD had been pursuing when we issued our report. They continue to acquire RPMs under the ongoing phase of the acquisition, in coordination with CBP, and to pursue reduction of nuisance alarm rates in the RPMs acquired during this acquisition.
Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office The Assistant Secretary for CWMD should specify, in the new strategic plan for the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture, steps to reconstitute the capability gap analysis function, a strategy for outreach to key stakeholders in reconstituting this function, and time frames for the completion of the capability gap assessments. (Recommendation 2)
Open – Partially Addressed
According to CWMD officials, CWMD's efforts to close this recommendation are underway. The Global Nuclear Detection Architecture (GNDA) Strategy Domestic Implementation Plan, which CWMD provided us, identifies outreach to key stakeholders in reconstituting the gap analysis function. The specific activities include analyzing GNDA models for potential areas of improvement, collaborating with stakeholders to validate effectiveness of GNDA assessments and models, identifying radiological and nuclear (R/N) detection capability/capacity gaps, prioritizing R/N detection activities based on data-driven risk-informed analysis and capability improvements, and informing evidence-based decisions for resourcing prioritized R/N detection activities. By November 2024, CWMD's Policy, Strategy, and Analysis (PSA) directorate is planning to complete simulation and modeling analysis capabilities for all hazard WMD capability and gap assessments with the intent of re-establish a gap analysis capability that includes gap management, prioritization of requirements, programs, and resourcing utilizing risk analysis results. By March 2025, PSA will also have drafted GNDA Strategy tracking and implementation assessments.
Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office The Assistant Secretary for CWMD should specify in CWMD's State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Engagement Strategy how often CWMD will convene its state and local partners in the chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threat areas. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
In July 2022, CWMD released its State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial (SLTT) Engagement Strategy Implementation Plan for Fiscal Years 2022-2025. The plan specifies that SLTT stakeholders across threat areas will convene at least annually. The plan also says that CWMD will hold 10 to 15 BioWatch exercises per year, will host bi-annual technical sessions for BioWatch and Securing the Cities (radiological/nuclear) partners, and will convene one to two chemical defense workshops per year, among other things.
Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office The Assistant Secretary for CWMD should develop and document a formal process for resolving complaints about CWMD contractors. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
As of November 2022, CWMD officials updated the grant agreements signed by its state, local, tribal, and territorial partners beginning in fiscal year 2023 to include language that grant recipients do not have to tolerate any unprofessional behavior and provides multiple federal points of contact within CWMD to which recipients may report complaints.

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Acquisition strategyBorder controlCombating terrorismHomeland securityLocal partnersNuclear detectionRadiation detection devicesWeapons of mass destructionPersonnel managementBiosurveillance