Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 9, 2012

Biowatch: A Homeland Security Nightmare?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on July 9, 2012

This past weekend the LA Times published a scathing story on the Biowatch program.  A few select quotes from former federal, state, and local public health leaders:

“I can’t find anyone in my peer group who believes in BioWatch,” said Dr. Ned Calonge, chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment from 2002 to 2010.


“The only times it goes off, it’s wrong. I just think it’s a colossal waste of money. It’s a stupid program.”


“It is not realistic to undertake a nationwide, blanket deployment of biosensors,” the advisory panel, named the JASON group, concluded.


“In the senior-level discussions, the issue of efficacy really wasn’t on the table,” recalled Reeves, who has since retired from the Army. “It was get it done, tell the president we did good, tell the nation that they’re protected.… I thought at the time this was good PR, to calm the nation down. But an effective system? Not a chance.”


“The idea behind BioWatch — that you could put out these ambient air filters and they would provide you with the information to save people exposed to a biological attack — it’s a concept that you could only put together in theory,” Calonge said in an interview. “It’s a poorly conceived strategy for doing early detection that is inherently going to pick up false positives.”


Biologist David M. Engelthaler, who led responses to several BioWatch false positives while serving as Arizona’s bioterrorism coordinator, is one of the many public health officials who see it differently.

“A Homeland Security or national security pipe dream,” he said, “became our nightmare.”


(By the way, when your comic-book sounding, super-smart advisory panel called the “JASONS” doesn’t think its a good idea, maybe….it’s not a good idea…just sayin’.)

The failing of the system, if one can call it that, is two fold:

Detecting an attack requires a system that is not only discriminating but also highly sensitive — to guarantee that it won’t miss traces of deadly germs that might have been dispersed over a large area.

BioWatch is neither discriminating enough for the one task nor sensitive enough for the other.

And before he brings this up in the comments, longtime commenter and sometime blogger Alan Wolfe (and others) has commented that this program was destined to fail as it aimed to apply a military battlefield detection mindset to the civilian realm.  Doesn’t appear he (and they) were so far off:

The system’s inherent flaws and the missing scientific work did not slow its deployment. After Bush’s speech, the White House assigned Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Reeves, whose office was responsible for developing defenses against chemical and biological attacks, to get BioWatch up and running.

Over the previous year, Reeves had overseen placement of units similar to the BioWatch samplers throughout the Washington area, including the Pentagon, where several false alarms for anthrax and plague later occurred.

Based on that work and computer modeling of the technology’s capabilities, Reeves did not see how BioWatch could reliably detect attacks smaller than, for example, a mass-volume spraying from a crop duster.

Nevertheless, the priority was to carry out Bush’s directive, swiftly.

I could keep quoting from this extensively investigated article.  It is definitely worth your time reading.

What is disturbing is that there is an effort in Congress to combine the office responsible for Bioshield, the DHS Office of Health Affairs, with the people responsible for paying for radiation detectors that don’t work, DNDO.  No, really:

In a little-noticed section of the legislative report that accompanies the fiscal 2013 homeland security spending bill, the House Appropriations Committee calls on DHS officials to develop a plan to consolidate the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and the Office of Health Affairs.

So what’s a few million dollars among federal agency programs designed to detect threats that don’t actually detect any threats?

What’s really wrong with this picture is that it detracts from efforts that truly decrease honest-to-goodness bio, rad, and nuclear threats.  Preparedness, response, and recovery should be emphasized for the bio and rad threat, while securing fissile material should be the main goal in defeating the nuclear threat.  These are real risks and threats that will outlive the current and near-future iterations of Al Qaeda.  Yet the solutions aren’t that expensive or difficult to implement.

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1 Comment »

Comment by Alan Wolfe

July 11, 2012 @ 7:08 am

I am glad that you posted on this, Arnold. I meant to send something in but this is a horrible busy week. I will only concur with your points – that this is an article worth reading, and that this allocation of funding and attention to a national-level Maginot line for biological threats distracts from other more worthy efforts.

Oh and by the way, not a few million dollars (as you know) among federal agencies. BioWatch’s budget alone is around $180M/yr, giving credence to the article’s note that we’ve spent about a billion dollars on this program since 2005. To expand it with the Gen 3 system would only add folly on top of incompetence.

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