Auditor cites progress resolving flaws in Biowatch program

The Homeland Security Department's biological agent detection system in more than 30 cities has been overhauled after years of poor management, according to the agency's oversight office.

Released Wednesday, the report by the Homeland Security Inspector General's Office described a number of problems with the Biowatch monitoring network that could have undermined its ability to detect biological agents and "protect the populace of the United States."

Launched in 2003, the federal program installed detectors in urban areas to test for roughly 20 pathogens that might be released by terrorists. The list of the cities in which equipment has been deployed has not been released, but New York and Washington are believed to be included.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the anthrax mailings that followed, terrorism exports warned of the serious potential for a major biological attack. Analysts continue to caution that a strike could cause as many casualties as an act of nuclear terrorism.

Homeland Security rolled out Biowatch in just 80 days between late January and mid-April 2003. By 2004, however, an evaluation uncovered faulty techniques and mistakes in taking the air filters from the field to laboratories for analysis.

Filters were improperly transferred, the bags they were transported in were not decontaminated, procedural errors were made and quality control was lacking, the inspector general found. In 2005, laboratories received an even lower grade in a second round of evaluations.

"DHS identified areas for improvement in the operation of the program but did not follow up on these areas," according to the report.

The inspector general also found deficiencies in the cooperation between the Homeland Security Department and the other agencies involved in the monitoring program, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"DHS did not enforce the required submission of monthly and quarterly status reports … which would have enabled it to properly monitor its federal partners," auditors wrote. Lax management controls over the program opens it up to mismanagement of funds, they said.

Action has been taken to fix the issues, according to the report, although no specifics were given.

"We consider all recommendations resolved and closed," the report's authors wrote.

Still, the House Homeland Security Committee plans to revisit the program this year, Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said late last month.

Lawmakers, he said, want to take a look at the "very low-key" program to see if it has "has any success at all."

In October 2003, shortly after the program's launch, detectors in Houston detected airborne evidence of the bacteria that causes tularemia, but analysis later determined that the results were due to a naturally occurring bacteria and not a malicious act. There have been 15 such positives later attributed to natural causes, according to Homeland Security.

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