After 18 Years, Billion-Dollar Bioterror Defense System Still Can’t Detect Multiple Threats

In the latest of many issues to plague the nation’s seriously flawed system to detect biological attacks, a federal audit reveals it lacks detection equipment in more than half the country and is unable to recognize multiple biological agents that pose threats. The beleaguered system, known as BioWatch, has already received north of a billion dollars in government funding and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) keeps pouring money into it despite its well-documented failures. Here is why; the government has no back up plan to deal with a biological terrorist attack, a very realistic threat considering the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). That disturbing information was disclosed by a senior DHS official who confirmed after congressional investigators exposed BioWatch’s deficiencies that it is  the only “biosurveillance system designed to detect the intentional release of select aerosolized biological agents.”

BioWatch was introduced with tremendous grandeur by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks. Just days after 9/11, letters laced with powdered anthrax spores began appearing in the U.S. mail. Five Americans were killed, and more than a dozen sickened. The government labeled it the worst biological attack in U.S. history and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) created a special task force to catch the culprit. In 2003 President Bush and Congress established BioWatch to surveil for aerosolized exposure caused by the intentional release of biological agents. The system includes hundreds of units that collect air from public places in dozens of urban areas. Samples are sent to a lab that tests for dangerous pathogens that terrorists may use in an attack against civilians. But years ago, congressional investigators found that the costly air samplers are not reliable when it comes to detecting an attack.

Regardless, DHS continues to tout the system as life-saving technology that can detect pathogens that cause anthrax, tularemia, smallpox, plague and other deadly diseases. The early detection of a biological attack is an essential part of an effective biodefense posture, DHS asserts. The reality is that BioWatch is best known for false alarms and other glitches. The system is such a joke that years ago state and local authorities stopped ordering evacuations when its alarm triggers. In fact, federal agencies documented 56 false alarms in just a few years, yet DHS keeps spending large sums to keep BioWatch alive and the agency plans to continue investing huge sums if Congress does not stop it. BioWatch currently operates under a special DHS unit called Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD) with an average annual budget of $76 million. Former President Donald Trump created the office in 2018 to prevent attacks against the country through “timely, responsive support to operational partners.” On its website the CWMD touts BioWatch as a valuable tool that provides early warning of a bioterrorist attack in more than 30 metropolitan areas across the country. “This early warning helps decision makers plan an effective, coordinated, and rapid response,” the CWMD proclaims.

Not exactly, according to several federal probes published in the last few years. The costly system’s latest mishaps are documented in a lengthy report issued this month by the DHS Inspector General. Portions are redacted for security reasons, but enough material is available to illustrate that BioWatch remains a disaster after nearly two decades and a monstrous investment by American taxpayers. For starters, BioWatch’s early warning system is not operating nationwide like it is supposed to be. In fact, its biological detection equipment is only located in 22 states, leaving 28 without coverage. In most of the jurisdictions air samples could not be collected to be tested for biological threats because equipment was not secured to prevent unplugging or security breaches, according to the audit. It gets better. BioWatch has failed to update its biological agent detection capabilities so it can only monitor about 43% of biological agents known to be threats.

The IG blasts the government, writing that the “United States’ ability to prepare, detect, and respond to a potential bioterrorism attack is impeded, which could result in significant loss of human life.” The watchdog reveals that the country is at risk of a bioterrorism attack going undetected and recommends that DHS conduct risk assessments of BioWatch’s posture, ensure physical security of all portable sampling unit equipment and utilize the most recent threat assessment to enhance biological agent detection capabilities to respond to the most up-to-date threats. DHS agrees with the recommendations and vows to make the changes. The agency also says it will have the Los Alamos National Laboratory conduct a new assessment to assist BioWatch with optimizing its defense against bioterrorism.

BioWatch and its colossal price tag have been on Judicial Watch’s radar for years. Back in 2012 Judicial Watch reported that DHS refused to provide congressional leaders with records of the controversial system, outraging both Democrats and Republicans demanding accountability from then DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. The lawmakers, who at the time chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, said in a letter to Napolitano that her agency’s inadequate response to their request for BioWatch records raised serious questions about the department’s “willingness to cooperate with efforts to ensure the success of the BioWatch program and transparency about its potential failures.”

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