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: In response to GAO's August 2011 recommendation, DHS is in the process of finalizing a report on agencies' efforts to implement HSPD-9--the nation's policy to defend the food and agriculture systems against potential terrorist attacks and major disasters. In November 2013, DHS officials told GAO that it planned to conduct an assessment of the current state of agencies' HSPD-9 implementation. An interagency working group chaired by DHS reached out to agencies with HDSP-9 responsibilities in 2014 to obtain information on the status of their HSPD-9 projects and programs, including information on resources devoted to each effort and concrete examples of success. In November 2014, DHS reported to GAO that it received extensive feedback from the agencies involved, and DHS plans to finalize the report after interagency stakeholders conduct a final review of the report in early 2015.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's August 2011 recommendation, the National Security Staff has taken steps to establish an interagency process to provide oversight of agencies' implementation of HSPD-9, including research and development, surveillance, prevention, and response capabilities. Specifically, the National Security Staff told GAO in December 2013 that they have co-hosted (with the Office of Science and Technology Policy) meetings for an interagency working group that is chaired by the Department of Homeland Security. The working group met three times in 2013 and includes partners from the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, State, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, as well as U.S. Geological Services and the Environmental Protection Agency. According to the National Security Staff, recent interagency meetings have discussed topics related to HSPD-9. The National Security Staff also told GAO in December 2013 that they plan to continue to oversee agencies' implementation of HSPD-9 through the working group.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's August 2011 recommendation, the National Security Staff has co-hosted an interagency working group to encourage agencies to participate in and contribute information to DHS's efforts to coordinate agencies' implementation of HSDP-9. Specifically, National Security Staff officials told GAO in December 2013 that they have co-hosted (with the Office of Science and Technology Policy) meetings for an interagency working group that is chaired by DHS. The working group met three times in 2013 and includes partners from the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, State, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, as well as U.S. Geological Services and the Environmental Protection Agency. According to the National Security Staff, recent interagency meetings have discussed topics related to HSPD-9, including research and development, surveillance, prevention, and response capabilities. The National Security Staff also told GAO in December 2013 that they plan to continue to oversee agencies' implementation of HSPD-9 through the working group. DHS officials also told GAO in November 2013 that, throughout the previous 18 months, the National Security Staff had invested effort and expressed interest in the interagency working group and that the National Security Staff has been involved in discussions about DHS's assessment of agencies' implementation of HSPD-9. DHS officials told GAO that they appreciate the National Security Staff's support.

    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: In response to GAO's August 2011 recommendation, the Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) have met periodically to determine if there are opportunities for National Veterinary Stockpile (NVS) to leverage the Strategic National Stockpile's (SNS) mechanisms or infrastructure. In November 2014, officials from the NVS and SNS told GAO that they drafted a Memorandum of Agreement to formalize their relationship and outline opportunities for future collaboration. According to officials from the two programs, the Memorandum of Agreement is under review, but officials did not provide an estimate for when they expect the agreement to be signed.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA officials told us in September 2014 that ESF-11 after-action reports are consistently completed and shared with key parties after each ESF-11 activation. They are now also posted on USDA's website, and USDA officials told us that perspectives of key parties are incorporated in the after-action reports. In addition, DHS updated the National Response Framework ESF Annexes in 2013, and pet sheltering is no longer a primary function under ESF-11; instead, it now falls under ESF-6, which is coordinated by DHS.

    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: In response to GAO's August 2011 recommendation, the Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) have met periodically to determine if there are opportunities for National Veterinary Stockpile (NVS) to leverage the Strategic National Stockpile's (SNS) mechanisms or infrastructure. In November 2014, officials from the NVS and SNS told GAO that they drafted a Memorandum of Agreement to formalize their relationship and outline opportunities for future collaboration. According to officials from the two programs, the Memorandum of Agreement is under review, but officials did not provide an estimate for when they expect the agreement to be signed.

    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: In response to GAO's August 2011 recommendation, USDA has taken initial steps to develop a process to track research gaps identified in NPDRS recovery plans and monitor progress in filling these gaps. USDA officials told GAO in November 2013 that the department's Agricultural Research Service has planned annual meetings with relevant USDA agencies, other federal agencies, and the American Phytopathological Society--a nonprofit partner dedicated to the study and control of plant diseases--to provide coordination and tracking among federal, state and local agencies and the private industry sector. USDA took positive steps in 2013, but it still does not have a documented, systematic process to monitor the extent to which research gaps are filled.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA told us in September 2014 that the agency has taken steps to share NPDRS recovery plans through meetings, workshops and conferences. USDA developed a new website and shared NPDRS recovery plans with other federal programs, such as USDA's Invasive Species Coordination Program.

    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: In response to GAO's August 2011 recommendation, USDA informed GAO in 2012 that it intended to develop a comprehensive homeland security strategy to oversee its component agencies' implementation of homeland security activities, including responsibilities outlined in HSPD-9. However, USDA officials told us in November 2013 that, because of limited staffing and resources, as well as competing priorities, they were not able to develop a strategy in 2013. In November 2014, officials told GAO that they again could not focus efforts on developing a strategy because of an organizational realignment implemented in 2014. According to USDA officials, a USDA working group is planning to develop a strategy in the 2nd quarter of fiscal year 2015.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2014, DHS officials told us that it developed a fact sheet on public assistance for animal carcass removal and disposal. The fact sheet describes what assistance may be available from FEMA or other agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, for the removal and disposal of animal carcasses. The fact sheet also includes "frequently asked questions" that address issues such as which animals are eligible for carcass removal and disposal.

    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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