Friday, November 16, 2012
DHS is accused of withholding documents concerning the failed BioWatch detection system.
Washington, DC - Homeland Security Department and other federal officials responsible for BioWatch, the nationwide system for detecting deadly biological attacks, have withheld key documents sought by a congressional committee, according to the panel's leaders.
Each trigger costs approximately $10,000 - $15,000 and each confirmer is roughly $40,000.
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the chairmen call for her to comply with their original request for documents, which was triggered by a July 8 Los Angeles Times article that disclosed shortcomings in BioWatch's performance.
"The response from DHS to date has been inadequate, raising 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," wrote Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who heads its oversight and investigations subcommittee.
Upton and Stearns added that the Homeland Security Department "continues to withhold key documents more than three months after our initial request" and asked that those items and newly sought BioWatch materials be relinquished by Nov. 26.
The chairmen said in a separate letter to the director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Thomas Frieden, that the agency had provided "insufficient responses" to BioWatch-related requests that the committee sent to him in July.
BioWatch was launched in 2003 by President George W. Bush to "protect our people and our homeland." The Times reported in July that the system has generated scores of false alarms and, based on test results and computer modeling, could not be relied on to detect a germ attack.
The false alarms — including the supposed detection of a deadly pathogen at the site of the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver — have caused tense, protracted deliberations among government officials responsible for deciding whether to order evacuations or other emergency actions.
BioWatch operates in more than 30 major U.S. cities, where units placed atop buildings and other public places continuously suck air through composite filters. The filters are removed daily and delivered to public health laboratories, where technicians search for the DNA of anthrax, smallpox and a handful of other pathogens.
In their letter this week to Napolitano, the two congressional chairmen reiterated their interest "to determine how the BioWatch program is performing and whether it is meeting public protection goals without unduly disrupting the public health system and local emergency responders."
The letters to the CDC and to the Homeland Security Department were transmitted late Tuesday and subsequently posted on the Energy and Commerce Committee's website.
In their letter to the CDC's Frieden, the chairmen described a private briefing provided by a senior agency scientist, Dr. Toby L. Merlin, who was asked by congressional staff about instances when BioWatch failed to distinguish between a pathogen that might be used in an attack and benign, "near-neighbor" organisms.
Read more about the failed BioWatch detection system:
DHS BioWatch detectors can't be counted on to detect a real attack:
BioWatch samplers located in subways & atop buildings are defective: