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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.