GAO: $1 Billion U.S. Bio-Terror System is Busted, Can’t Get Job Done

biowatch air sampler Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the BioWatch system used to fight against bioterrorism is useless.

“You can’t claim it works,” Timothy Persons, GAO’s chief scientist, told The Los Angeles Times.

The scientists often find “numerous false alarms” since they cannot “distinguish between harmless germs and the lethal pathogens that terrorists” would use in an attack. Despite the evidence, the Department of Homeland Security still shows off the alleged “effectiveness while seeking to upgrade it with new technology.”

From The LA Times:

The 100-page document, scheduled for release Monday, says that Homeland Security “lacks reliable information” about BioWatch’s “technical capabilities to detect a biological attack.” The Los Angeles Times obtained a copy of the report.

The government has never defined the minimum capabilities, or “performance requirements,” needed for BioWatch to alert authorities to a deliberate release of deadly pathogens and not be fooled by similar but benign bugs that are pervasive in the environment, according to the report.

Homeland Security officials “told us that in the 12 years since BioWatch’s initial deployment, they have not developed technical performance requirements against which to measure the system’s ability to meet its objective,” the report says.

The report says that from 2003 through 2014, BioWatch generated 149 mistaken detections — all of which “have been termed false positives” by scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other experts the GAO consulted. The frequency of false alarms has declined since 2013, the report says.

BioWatch has cost taxpayers $87 million over the last year, the report says. It recommends against spending more money to maintain the system in its present form, even though the air collectors and other equipment are wearing out.

But senior Homeland Security official Jim Crumpacker lashed out against the report, since BioWatch is the only system to fight against bioterrorism.

“The program provides public health officials with a warning of potentially hazardous biological agent release before exposed individuals would typically develop symptoms of illness,” he said. “It is important to recognize levels of uncertainty and limitations are inherent in any complex technical system.”

This is not the first time officials called out BioWatch for their subpar performances. A false alarm happened in Denver, CO, in 2008 only hours before now President Barack Obama was set to accept the Democratic presidential nomination. Since 2003, other false alarms occurred in Detroit, St. Louis, and San Diego. They almost disrupted the 2004 and 2008 Super Bowls.

In 2012, the House Energy and Commerce Committee accused the Department of Homeland Security of withholding Biowatch documents after the LA Times revealed the many false alarms. Congress members questioned a GAO report due to the same article.