Feds' bioterror detection system can't be trusted, watchdog warns

Feds' bioterror detection system can't be trusted, watchdog warns
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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can't trust its system for detecting biological attacks on the country, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned in a report on Monday.

According to the GAO, which acts as Congress’s investigative arm, the DHS “lacks reliable information” about its threat detection system and has been unable to measure whether the so-called BioWatch Gen-2 is perfuming up to snuff. 

“As a result of these gaps and limitations, considerable uncertainty remains as to the types and sizes of attack that the Gen-2 system could reliably detect,” the GAO declared in its report.

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The scathing analysis was met with concern on Capitol Hill, where the BioWatch system has come under repeated fire.

“This report confirms what many of us feared, that we are no safer today than when the BioWatch program launched over a decade ago,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said in a joint statement along with Reps. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who lead the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. “It is clear that BioWatch has not lived up to the job it set out to do, and we must put our efforts toward finding a program that will be successful in detecting and preventing these catastrophic attacks.”

The BioWatch program was first rolled out in 2003, with a goal of detecting a chemical or biological attack before the public started to get sick.

However, the system was rushed into deployment, preventing government officials from conducting “sufficient testing and evaluation” against a specific metric to understand its capabilities, the GAO said.

Since then, lawmakers fear that the system has cost more than $1 billion without proving itself capable of detecting signs of biological terrorism in the U.S.

The DHS system is in place in more than 30 metropolitan areas and is designed to detect attacks large enough to kill 10,000 people.

“There is no substitute for the current BioWatch early detection capability,” a DHS official said.

However, the agency “cannot conclude with any defined level of statistical certainty that the system can reliably achieve this objective,” said the GAO.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan analysis on bioterrorism led by former Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and ex-DHS Secretary Tom Ridge warned that the country was “dangerously vulnerable” to a biological attack or outbreak. 

The BioWatch system’s potential, the group added, “remains unrealized.”

The GAO said that government officials should hold off on making any upgrades or enhancements for the system until they are sure they understand its current powers.

In a statement, DHS spokesman S.Y. Lee said that the department “does not agree with all of GAO’s characterizations of our BioWatch efforts,” but is nonetheless taking steps to fulfill its recommendations. 

The program has conducted tests “that establish the performance and capabilities” of current technologies, he added, and has also identified possible upgrades.

This story was updated at 4:27 p.m.