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Times Investigation: Trump administration has gutted programs aimed at detecting weapons of mass destruction

David Willman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration has quietly dismantled or cut back multiple programs that were created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to help detect and prevent terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, a Times investigation has found.

The retreat has taken place over the last two years at the Department of Homeland Security, which has primary domestic responsibility for helping authorities identify and block potential chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.

The changes, not previously reported, were made without rigorous review of potential security vulnerabilities, The Times found, undermining government-wide efforts aimed at countering terrorist attacks involving unconventional weapons, known as WMD.

More than 30 current and former Homeland Security employees and contractors voiced concern that the changes -- including the cancellation of dozens of training exercises and the departure of scores of scientists and policy experts -- have put Americans at greater risk.

"What we had done in the past was analytically based: Where are the threats? Where can we get the most return on the taxpayers' investment for security?" said Paul Ryan, who until mid-2017 helped lead Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which was merged with another office last year.

"We're not as secure as we were 18 months ago," said Ryan, a retired Navy rear admiral.

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The cutbacks and shifts have been directed by James F. McDonnell, who has been appointed by President Donald Trump to successive posts at Homeland Security, a long-troubled department that has seen waves of leadership changes and policy upheaval since 2017.

McDonnell declined through a Homeland Security spokeswoman to be interviewed for this report, and the department did not answer written questions submitted on June 27.

On July 15, the spokeswoman, Ruth Clemens, emailed a three-sentence statement, saying that the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, which McDonnell heads, "is focused on preventing WMD terrorism by working with federal, state, and local partners across the nation."

It also said, "some programs were realigned or restructured to better address threats, remove bureaucratic redundancy, and fully align with (Trump's) National Security Strategy."

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