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November 23, 2015

Nonpartisan Watchdog Releases Report on BioWatch Terror Surveillance Warning System

(WASHINGTON) – House and Senate leaders today expressed concern after a new report was released by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office on the Homeland Security Department’s BioWatch program. 

The BioWatch program has been affected by false alarms and other problems since its deployment in 2003. As a result of the setbacks, local and state officials where BioWatch systems have been deployed have expressed a lack of confidence in the technology and have admitted they are hesitant to rely on the program’s detection abilities. Congressional leaders have been concerned that BioWatch is not adequately fulfilling its role of protecting the public and has cost taxpayers more than $1 billion.
Of particular interest at the time of the request to GAO was the program’s “Generation-3” procurement. However, after the Generation-3 acquisition was canceled in April 2014 because of testing problems and other challenges, the focus of the GAO review turned to the Generation-2 system, which is what the Department of Homeland Security has been relying on for more than 12 years.

Among the most striking findings in the report is an assessment that, “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) lacks reliable information about BioWatch Gen-2’s technical capabilities to detect a biological attack and therefore lacks the basis for informed cost-benefit decisions about upgrades to the system,” according to the report’s opening summary. The report continued by explaining that while DHS commissioned several tests of the current system, it “has not developed performance requirements that would enable it to interpret the test results and draw conclusions about the system’s ability to detect attacks.”

“The findings by the Government Accountability Office bring into focus shortcomings in the BioWatch program at a time when concerns about the threat of a bioterrorism event are elevated,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX), Ranking Member Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee Chairman Martha McSally (R-AZ), and Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee Ranking Member Donald Payne, Jr. (D-NJ). “Earlier this month, the co-chairs of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense testified before our Committee on the threat posed by bioterrorism. They made it clear that that we must act aggressively and deliberately to bolster our ability to detect and rapidly respond to a bioterror event. We also know terrorist groups, like ISIS, aspire to conduct attacks using biological agents. These facts make the Government Accountability Office’s findings about BioWatch all the more concerning. The Committee on Homeland Security has a long history of oversight of the BioWatch program, including oversight that resulted in the cancellation of the flawed Gen-3 acquisition. In the coming months, the Committee will continue this oversight to ensure that any future upgrades or enhancements to the system are based sound performance requirements and rigorous testing and that the technology is responsive to the current threat environment.” 

“This report confirms what many of us feared, that we are no safer today than when the BioWatch program launched over a decade ago,” said full committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-PA), and Oversight and Investigations Ranking Member Diana DeGette (D-CO). “Now more than ever we need reassurances that our efforts to combat and prevent bioterrorism are successful and trusted. It is clear that BioWatch has not lived up to the job it set out to do, and we must put our efforts toward finding a program that will be successful in detecting and preventing these catastrophic attacks.”

“I am supportive of efforts in early detection and mitigation of a biological attack against our homeland,” said Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI). “However, GAO raises serious questions about the uncertainty in the capabilities of the current BioWatch system. We may be missing opportunities to properly support our biodefense infrastructure. I will work with the department, and my colleagues to assess what significant changes are needed in BioWatch going forward to ensure that we are most efficiently utilizing our limited biodefense resources.”

Link to Report

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Media contact: Adam Comis at (202) 225-9978