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Trump administration gutted anti-terror programs. Lawmakers want an explanation

David Willman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- The Republican and Democratic leaders of both the Senate and House Homeland Security committees are formally questioning why the Trump administration has cut programs intended to prevent terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction.

In a three-page letter, the congressional officials said their concerns were in response to a Los Angeles Times article published July 18 that revealed multiple anti-terrorism programs had been scaled back or eliminated since 2017 at Homeland Security. The article described the gutting of training and drills, including "red team" efforts to instruct federal, state and local officials on how to detect suitcase-sized nuclear devices or radioactive dirty bombs hidden on cargo ships.

In their letter, the congressional officials said the published report "raises serious concerns" about the Department of Homeland Security's ability to protect against an attack using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials in the United States.

The bipartisan letter calls into question actions taken during the last two years by James F. McDonnell, an assistant Homeland Security secretary who was appointed by President Trump and who leads the department's Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office.

The Senate and House officials are seeking McDonnell's rationale for making the changes and are requesting department documents related to at least six programs no later than Sept. 19. More specifically, the officials said they wanted "any assessments conducted by CWMD that led to or supported the realigning or restructuring of any CWMD program or activity.

They also pressed McDonnell to schedule private briefings between his aides and Senate and House committee staffers.

 

The Aug. 30 letter was signed by Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee; Sen. Gary C. Peters of Michigan, the most senior Democrat on the committee; Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee; and, Rep. Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, the panel's ranking Republican.

A news release from the Senate and House committees accompanying the letter said that Homeland Security "may not be fulfilling its mission to safeguard against" terrorists with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons "due to decisions made by the Administration to curtail the office's programs."

Asked for comment, a Homeland Security official said, "We look forward to continuing ongoing discussions with our congressional oversight committees."

In advance of the original Times article in July, a spokeswoman for McDonnell provided a statement to The Times, saying that some programs within the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office "were realigned or restructured to better address threats, remove bureaucratic redundancy, and fully align with (Trump's) National Security Strategy."

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