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DHS Official Opposes Next-Gen Biowatch Sensors

Staffers are shown in July 2011 on a mobile laboratory used in the U.S. Homeland Security Department's Biowatch program. A senior DHS official has argued against moving ahead with program plans for a next-generation biological agent detector, the Los Angeles Times reported (AP Photo/Ben Margot) Staffers are shown in July 2011 on a mobile laboratory used in the U.S. Homeland Security Department's Biowatch program. A senior DHS official has argued against moving ahead with program plans for a next-generation biological agent detector, the Los Angeles Times reported (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

A senior official does not believe the Homeland Security Department should proceed with plans to develop a third generation of sensors for identifying acts of biological terrorism, the Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday.

Undersecretary for Science and Technology Tara O'Toole has advised her boss, Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano, that the planned next-generation Biowatch sensor could not be trusted to uncover the aerial presence of such threats as plague, smallpox, and anthrax, informed researchers told the newspaper.

The much-maligned Biowatch program fields bioagent scanners in more than 30 cities. The bioterrorism detection initiative from 2003 to 2009 raised over 50 false alarms of a possible deliberate release of dangerous disease agents, according to previous reporting by the Times. Department officials have argued against the characterization of such events as false alarms.

O'Toole is worried the $3.1 billion estimated expense of the update in the first half-decade would waste department funding that could be better used on initiatives such as creating digital connections between public health offices, medical centers, and big HMOs, which would be useful in hastening the dissemination of medical countermeasures following a biological strike. She has shared her views on the matter with other DHS scientific personnel in addition to Napolitano, anonymous sources said.

"Her position is 'Kill it,'" one U.S. government researcher said. 

Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler said O'Toole was not allowed to discuss the matter. He did not offer a reason.

Napolitano is considering whether to authorize the five-year spending plan for the third generation of Biowatch sensors. Some DHS officials support moving forward with the project as do private firms, particularly Northrop Grumman, that are interested in bidding on the lucrative contract.

Senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have called on the Homeland Security Department to make available documents that contain O'Toole's opinions on the Biowatch program. The department has declined in hopes of preserving the confidential nature of the intradepartmental decision-making processes, officials said.

In the envisioned updated Biowatch system, "lab in a box" monitors would self-collect and analyze air samples and then digitally transmit the results to a laboratory. Such capability would eliminate one of the costliest and most cumbersome elements of the current generation of Biowatch sensors, which must have their filters manually changed and physically transported back to the laboratory for analysis. Generation 3 devices are also envisioned as having the capability of pinpointing a biological strike in four to six hours -- substantially less than the 12 to 36 hours currently required.

However, laboratory trials and field assessments in the New York City and Chicago subway systems have shown variously that Generation 3 prototypes have a tendency to fail without weekly maintenance and are not sophisticated enough to regularly uncover dangerous biological agents unless they are present in amounts far higher than those needed to cause illness or death. Devices tried in New York also on multiple occasions delivered incorrect information, according to the report.

Prior to her presidential appointment at the department, O'Toole advised a House subcommittee in March 2007 that "different and more useful" funding than on Biowatch was required to prepare for a biological weapons strike. In February 2010, the former University of Pittsburgh Center for Biosecurity chief executive testified it was "imperative" that Biowatch sensors "be carefully evaluated and ... tested in realistic field conditions before large technology acquisition investments are made."

Homeland Security Chief Medical Officer Alexander Garza is leading a department team that will "pursue rigorous operational testing and evaluation of candidate Generation 3 technologies to make an informed decision before deployment," according to Chandler.

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