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DHS Failed to Ask Key Questions on Planned Biowatch Gear: GAO

Congressional investigators have found the U.S. Homeland Security Department failed to determine if a planned new generation of biological strike scanners would meet an existing need and would function as intended before it pushed to obtain the technology, the Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday.

The Government Accountability Office in preliminary findings urged the department to reconsider the necessity of carrying out plans for a third generation of Biowatch detectors and to assess the project's budgetary implications.

Sustaining backing among lawmakers for the Generation 3 effort as well as existing Biowatch operations has been a goal for DHS personnel. Two House panels are due in a Thursday hearing to consider the GAO analysis, which faults officials under President Obama as well as former President Bush.

In excess of $150 million in DHS funds have so far gone toward preparation of scanning gear for the Generation 3 initiative, while the department has to date spent approximately $1 billion to deploy and maintain older disease agent sensors in more than 30 cities. Older Biowatch monitors, initially fielded in 2003, have produced "more than 100" inaccurate warnings of disease threats, GAO auditors wrote.

Homeland Security has not made the case for the necessity of the planned next-generation Biowatch equipment, and "good acquisition practices" have gone unobserved in the project, the assessment states. The gear is projected to require $3.1 billion during its initial half-decade of use.

Developmental versions of the new systems lacked appropriate levels of resiliency and reactivity for dependably carrying out their intended function, according to outcomes from experiments conducted both in confined settings and open environments. The Generation 3 equipment is intended to autonomously analyze atmospheric vapor and digitally transmit findings -- eliminating the need to physically remove filters for assessment at a scientific facility -- and to inform officials if they capture anthrax or one of no fewer than four additional hazardous organisms.

Following the 2001 anthrax mailings and the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, DHS personnel might have overlooked internal standards in obtaining the initial Biowatch network and designing its successor, according to the congressional auditors.

"None of these officials could describe what processes, if any, the department followed to determine that Gen-3 was a justified need," the GAO document states.

The assessment states that an unidentified Homeland Security official roughly three years ago backed plans for obtaining the Generation 3 equipment in the absence of "significant data necessary" for the determination.

It adds: "In the absence of complete and reliable information, DHS had limited assurance that the acquisition would successfully deliver the intended capability within cost and on schedule."

"The total annual cost to operate Gen-3 is estimated to be about four times more than the cost of the existing" gear, according to the GAO finding.

A Bush-era DHS official issued a conflicting statement in February 2007. Then-Homeland Security Undersecretary Jay Cohen told House lawmakers the new sensors would likely be "four times cheaper to operate" than their predecessors.

The scheduled update is advancing as planned and is "right where it needs to be," Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Alexander Garza added in March.

The Homeland Security Department previously asked the counseling Homeland Security Institute to aid in reviewing the Generation 3 equipment, according to congressional investigators. Its findings were due two months ago, but auditors said the department "has not provided us with a copy of the study or responded to requests to provide an updated time line for the study."



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