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Key lawmaker calls for halt to controversial system to detect biological attacks

Eddie Bernice Johnson
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) at an event in July.
(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

Citing “serious concerns” about unproven technology rushed into use by the Trump administration to detect biological attacks, the chairwoman of the House Science and Technology Committee is calling for the system to be shut down.

The chairwoman, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), said Wednesday that the administration’s newly deployed program, called BioDetection 21, or BD21, “should not move forward until fundamental concerns about its technological viability and conceptual framework are resolved.”

Johnson voiced her concerns in a letter to acting Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Gary C. Rasicot, who inherited his position and the program when its original promoter, presidential appointee James F. McDonnell, resigned under pressure in October. McDonnell was facing congressional scrutiny for his efforts with BD21 and his cutbacks of a range of programs intended to counter chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological threats.

In her letter, Johnson cited a Los Angeles Times investigative report published in February that revealed the new technology’s deficiencies, including its failures in government-sponsored tests to detect small particles of anthrax and other infectious agents that terrorists might wield in a biological attack.

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For instance, the tests found that the technology to be relied on by BD21 detected viral material simulating smallpox or other deadly viruses that could be weaponized in just eight of 168 attempts, a success rate of less than 5%.

Yet by early this year McDonnell had spearheaded the deployment of BD21 to a dozen cities and said he expected that it would replace BioWatch, the nation’s existing and long-troubled system for detecting aerosolized biological threats, by 2021.

BioWatch was installed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the emergence of several letters that were laced with anthrax. Anthrax from the letters killed five people, infected 16 others and caused closures of prominent government buildings in Washington and major disruptions to the delivery of U.S. mail. BioWatch, however, has been plagued with technical shortcomings and, as of 2014, had generated 149 false alarms.

BioWatch relies on devices placed at street level or atop buildings in metropolitan areas nationwide that suck air through filters to trap any suspicious material. Once a day, the filter is replaced and then taken to a laboratory to search for BioWatch-targeted pathogens.

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Unlike that system, BD21 depends on so-called trigger devices that use fluorescent light to identify potentially dangerous biological material in the air. Once the devices trigger a warning, officials would seek confirmation with handheld equipment.

But as The Times reported in February, technical experts hired by Homeland Security have advised the department not to use the handheld devices because of concerns about their reliability.

McDonnell said then that any deficiencies with either the trigger devices or the handheld equipment could be corrected as BD21 was installed and expanded.

As Johnson noted in her letter, McDonnell had told The Times that, “part of what I’m sort of reining in the scientists a little bit on is, ‘Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good enough.’”

Johnson wrote that McDonnell “displayed a similarly dismissive attitude” during a briefing with the committee’s staff in April. She urged Rasicot to take a more scientifically rigorous approach toward bio-detection. McDonnell could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

“Biological threats are among the most serious dangers facing the United States, and bio-detection presents an exceptionally complex set of technological and operational difficulties,” Johnson wrote to Rasicot, adding:

“I urge you to support a more meticulous process that emphasizes getting the program right over deploying it as quickly as possible. I believe that [the Department of Homeland Security] should not move forward with BD21 until it has reassessed the program and addressed the fundamental concerns.”

Johnson said that the “gravity of the biological threat, and the human and economic consequences of failure” had compelled bipartisan leaders of the House Science and Technology Committee “to closely scrutinize” BD21 in recent months.

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Rasicot, who now heads Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office and whose career has included serving 24 years as a Coast Guard officer, has not remarked publicly on the controversy surrounding BD21.

Asked for comment Wednesday, Rasicot said through a Homeland Security spokeswoman that he has not set a date for completing deployment of BD21. He called the system a “multi-year acquisition effort.”

On Nov. 22, Johnson and her committee colleagues, Reps. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.), Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) and Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) wrote that the testing failures and other deficiencies “raise serious questions about BD 21.” In a 12-page letter, the officials asked the Government Accountability Office to expand its pending investigation of the fledgling bio-detection system.

Those members’ concerns about BD21 are in addition to related inquiries lodged by bipartisan leaders of three other congressional panels -- the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the House Homeland Security Committee and the Senate Homeland Security Committee. The Energy and Commerce Committee leaders were first to request the Government Accountability Office investigation, citing The Times’ article in February.

Stephen A. Morse, a retired federal microbiologist who reviewed various bio-detection technologies for the government during his 32-year career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that the test failures and lack of demonstrated effectiveness should doom BD21. Homeland Security has estimated that the new system would cost about $80 million a year.

“It’s a big waste of money,” Morse said in an interview from Atlanta. “They [members of Congress] should it cut it off right now. I don’t think it’s going to be a useful replacement for BioWatch.”


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