Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Jen Easterly called on Congress today to reauthorize the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program – which the cybersecurity chief said has resulted in improving the security posture of high-risk facilities by 60 percent.

During the opening session of CISA’s Chemical Security Summit on Aug. 29, Easterly laid out how communities across the nation are at greater risk until Congress reauthorizes the program that has kept chemicals out of the hands of terrorists for nearly 17 years.  

CISA’s annual summit is being held just one month after Congress failed to reauthorize the CFATS program, leaving CISA unable to perform this vital national security function.

Despite strong support from industry and overwhelming bipartisan backing in both the House and the Senate, Easterly said until Congress reauthorizes the program, CISA can no longer inspect more than 3,200 high-risk sites, enforce implementation of security measures, vet individuals seeking access to dangerous chemicals, or identify new facilities that possess high-risk chemicals.

“That authority has been absolutely critical to keeping our communities safe from the threat of chemical terrorism,” Easterly said. “From ensuring that the more than 3,200 high risk chemical facilities across every state are protected from both cyber threats and physical threats … so it’s not just about putting safeguards in place to digital systems and to physical security of structures,” she said.

Easterly continued, adding, “It really is fundamentally about protecting our communities, and given how important chemicals are in our everyday lives it really [is] about ensuring that the economic foundation of our society can continue to thrive but to do so in a safe and secure way.”

Easterly said that she was “disheartened” that Congress allowed the CFATS authority to expire because it is “emblematic, really a shining example of smart regulation – something that is grounded in a strong partnership between industry and the Federal government in a way that exemplifies what we are trying to do for the collective defense of the nation.”

The CISA head highlighted that since 2006, the CFATS program has been able to help improve the security posture of high-risk chemical facilities by nearly 60 percent.

Without the CFATS program, Easterly said, gaps will include things like inadequate security controls, inability to detect intruders, insufficient access controls, inadequate security training, and insufficient cybersecurity patching and vulnerability scanning.

The CFATS program conducted 160 inspections per month, and more than one in three of these resulted in an identified issue, CISA’s Associate Director for Chemical Security, Kelly Murray, said during the summit today. Since 2015, the program has identified over 10 known or suspected terrorists seeking access to these facilities.

“CISA is offering facilities resources and tools to help them enhance their security, but this voluntary program is no substitute for CFATS. Absent the CFATS authority, we cannot ensure that chemical facilities are mitigating the terrorist exploitation of chemical holdings,” Easterly wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published ahead of CISA’s Chemical Security Summit.

She continued, “Communities across the nation are at greater risk until Congress reauthorizes this bipartisan and critical program. We must ensure that chemicals do not become weaponized by those who wish to do Americans harm.”

During CISA’s event today, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas also expressed support for reauthorizing the CFATS program and noted that “our national security has not been and cannot become a partisan endeavor.”

Mayorkas highlighted that reauthorization legislation passed the House by a vote of 409-1, showing strong bipartisan support if the legislation were to go up for a Senate vote.

“The Senate must reauthorize CFATS as soon as it is back in session,” the secretary added. “Time is not our ally when it comes to confronting terrorists, chemical weapons, or chemical threats.”

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.