The Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, or CFATS, is a program administered by the Department of Homeland Security with the aim of protecting “high-risk” chemical facilities across the United States. These facilities are deemed high-risk based on the chemicals they have on-site and the potential damage these chemicals can cause if used by terrorists to attack the population of the United States.

The program was passed by Congress in 2007 and, as a new program to be managed by a new agency (DHS), CFATS has seen its fair share of growing pains. What was probably the most challenging period for CFATS was triggered by events occurring December 22, 2011. That day, Fox News published what should have been an internal DHS memo prepared by the new Director of DHS’ Infrastructure Compliance Security Division (ISCD), the division within DHS responsible for CFATS implementation, addressed exclusively to the Under Secretary’s office. In that memo, the Director presented certain challenges she had identified with CFATS and also a list of action items to fix those issues. Who was behind the leak and why it was leaked is anybody’s guess, but on an election year and considering the media outlet to which it was leaked, political motivation is definitely a possibility.

The issues described in the memo were serious. The fact that ISCD had not approved a single Site Security Plan or carried out any compliance inspection of a regulated facility years after the program was put in place was a cause of great concern. Also, the memo indicated that the culture within ISCD did not promote professionalism, respect and openness. The memo indicated a lack of measurable employee performance goals and unclear performance and conduct standards.

The leaked memo created a storm of criticism against the program. Voices from the public and even from members of Congress who had historically supported the program such as Susan Collins (R-Maine), called for heads to roll. Collins even expressed that DHS had misled Congress on the real progress of the program.

Unfortunately, this was a case of the media sensationalizing what should have been an internal discussion. A report published on July 26, 2012 by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the leaked memo and the progress ISCD has made on addressing those issues indicates that the memo was not intended for wider internal or external dissemination and that, as recognized by the Director herself, was based on opinions and conclusions that had not undergone the normal review process by DHS’s Secretariat. It also indicates that the memo was not reflective of the official DHS position.

Furthermore, senior ISCD officials contacted by GAO for the July 2012 report indicated that although they were generally in agreement with the findings of the memo, they believed it was missing context and balance. They indicated the memo was overly negative and never presented any of the achievements of the program. The fact that thousands of former high-risk facilities had decided to reduce or eliminate hazardous chemicals in order to drop from the program undoubtedly made America safer. To further complicate matters for ISCD and CFATS in particular, the media almost completely ignored the fact that the memo also included a plan to solve the identified issues. Ninety-four action items were identified by the Director and her team to address all of the identified issues.

According to GAO, by June 2012, 40 percent of the items in the plan were already completed. The remaining 60 percent were in progress.

One critical and difficult action item in the list is the creation of a new system to review, evaluate and approve/disapprove Site Security Plans. The current system is clearly inadequate; it would take years to evaluate all the SSPs under today’s arrangement.

The conclusion of the GAO report is that, although ISCD has identified the numerous challenges facing CFATS, the action plan intended to address those challenges is a step in the right direction. Also, it says that it is still too early to know if the action items will have the intended effect on the legislation as only 38 items have been completed so far, with 56 still in progress.

We tend to agree with GAO; CFATS is an important program, without which our country would face an increased risk of terrorist attack. Both industry and government agree on its importance and are willing to make the investments and sacrifices required for its survival. With clear procedures and a streamlined mechanism for SSP evaluation and final approval, CFATS will remain at the forefront of homeland security.