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Lawmakers seek probe of controversial bioweapons defense system

James F. McDonnell
During a 2017 congressional hearing, James F. McDonnell, an assistant secretary of Homeland Security, discusses administration policy dealing with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats posed by terrorists.
(Department of Homeland Security)

The Trump administration’s attempt to deploy a scientifically disputed system for detecting airborne anthrax or other infectious agents in terrorist attacks is facing increased scrutiny from a bipartisan group of House members.

In a three-page letter, four Democrats and Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct an in-depth scientific evaluation of the new system, called BioDetection 21.

Officials from the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, signaled that they plan to open the inquiry.

The lawmakers’ request cited a Feb. 15 Los Angeles Times article as the impetus for a full-fledged review of the controversial new biodefense system.

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The letter was signed by the committee chairman, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), and the ranking member, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), along with Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.).

Homeland Security is facing separate congressional scrutiny for efforts over the last two years to reduce or eliminate other programs intended to identify and block chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats posed by terrorists.

The cutbacks were detailed in a Times investigative report last month that found the Trump administration had gutted training, drills and other programs put in place after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in a broad-based effort to prevent an attack on U.S. soil involving weapons of mass destruction.

The Department of Homeland Security has initially installed BioDetection 21 in 12 U.S. cities as a planned replacement for BioWatch, the nation’s existing, problem-plagued biodetection system.

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BioWatch has been plagued from the start by false alarms, however, and government scientists say it cannot be relied on to detect actual biological attacks.

The lawmakers’ letter asks the GAO to assess “to what extent Homeland Security has implemented recommendations from a 2015 GAO report to thoroughly evaluate the capabilities of BioWatch.”

The letter also noted that the GAO’s 2015 report had recommended that Homeland Security “incorporate best practices for testing in conducting any system upgrades” and questioned whether the deployment of BioDetection 21 has met those standards.

The lawmakers said the Feb. 15 Times article “raises serious questions and concerns about whether [Homeland Security] is following through on the GAO recommendations.”

“When it comes to protecting Americans from biological attacks — the U.S. government has no margin for error. Our security officials and the systems they use to alert the public of attacks must be reliable,” Zack Roday, a spokesman for the House committee’s Republicans, said Thursday.

BioDetection 21 relies on so-called trigger devices that use fluorescent light to identify potentially dangerous biological agents in the air. Once the devices triggered a warning, officials would use handheld equipment to confirm or dispel fears that a biological attack had occurred.

But the lawmakers’ letter cited The Times article to point out that four trigger devices had failed in testing last year to detect anthrax spores, and only “correctly detected small particles of viral material in eight of 168 attempts,” a success rate of less than 5%.

According to the letter, the specialists who examined the test results for Homeland Security “recommended against using the handheld devices” required in the BioDetection 21 system, and concluded that the trigger devices have “clear limitations … for detection of smaller particles and some biological threat categories.”

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“If this information is correct,” the House members added, “this would raise concerns that [Homeland Security] would be replacing BioWatch with an even less reliable system, with the risk of state and local authorities being burdened with responding to more false positive results.”

Asked for comment, a Homeland Security official said: “We look forward to continuing the ongoing discussions of BioDetection 21 with our congressional oversight committees and the GAO.” The official declined to be identified, citing department policy.

James F. McDonnell, an assistant secretary of Homeland Security who has championed BioDetection 21, has said he hopes to replace BioWatch in roughly the next two years.

In an interview with The Times in February, McDonnell said he aims to get as many as 9,000 trigger devices operating by 2025.

Problems with BioDetection 21, he said, would be fixed along the way. “Part of what I’m reining in the scientists a little bit on is, ‘Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good,’” he said.


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