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Lawmakers Renew Demand for Biowatch Records

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

Biologist Crystal Jaing in 2011 analyzes a sample from the Biowatch detection program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee this week renewed their demands for Homeland Security Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documentation on the program (AP Photo/Ben Margot). Biologist Crystal Jaing in 2011 analyzes a sample from the Biowatch detection program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee this week renewed their demands for Homeland Security Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documentation on the program (AP Photo/Ben Margot).

WASHINGTON -- Two top Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee this week renewed their demand that the Homeland Security Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide documentation on the functioning of a nationwide program for detecting bioterror attacks.

The panel is investigating the Biowatch program in the wake of reports indicating that technology deployed in more than 30 cities has been beset by incorrect readings and other problems, Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee head Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) said in a Tuesday letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

"On July 19, 2012, we wrote to you requesting information and documents to determine how the Biowatch program is performing and whether it is meeting public protection goals without unduly disrupting the public health system and local emergency responders," the lawmakers wrote. The department so far "has provided insufficient responses" even as further troubling details "have come to light," they added.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Oct. 23 that Biowatch from 2007 to 2009 used faulty sampling technology that enhanced the technical troubles already facing the program.

Upton and Stearns called on the DHS chief by Nov. 26 to "confirm whether the Biowatch system operated with defective components. If so, please provide the date(s) DHS learned that the components were defective. If not, please provide the basis for DHS concluding that the components were not defective, and supporting documentation."

The lawmakers also asked for a host of additional information, including the reasoning behind the fielding and eventual retirement of the "multiplex" assays, along with supporting documentation.

The assays were intended to allow laboratory personnel to check filters removed from deployed Biowatch sensors for several types of harmful biological materials at once, cutting the time needed to react to a potential biological strike. However, the systems demonstrated significant drawbacks including an inability in testing to distinguish between potentially lethal tularemia and similar but harmless biological materials, the Times wrote as part of a number of articles on Biowatch.

"In addition to the above requested information, we seek your cooperation in obtaining a response to the July 19, 2012, letter," Upton and Stearns stated. "The response from DHS to date has been inadequate, raising serious questions about the department's willingness to cooperate with efforts to ensure the success of the Biowatch program and transparency about its potential failures."

Homeland Security "continues to withhold key documents more than three months after our initial request," the lawmakers said.

The committee has sought documents from five department staffers. Homeland Security said it would deliver the information, but has yet to provide any records from Undersecretary for Science and Technology Tara O'Toole and only one document from a scientist in her directorate, which manages Biowatch, according to the letter.

"They only provided documents from three of five officials, and are withholding documents from the Science and Technology people, except for one document," committee Republican spokeswoman Debbee Keller told Global Security Newswire by e-mail on Thursday. "DHS has also provided a couple hundred pages of slide presentations on Biowatch and a staff briefing."

Ultimately, "DHS notified the committee that the department would not provide the documents because of ongoing litigation between legislative and executive branches regarding congressional requests for internal, deliberative documents," according to Upton and Stearns.

"This latest rationale for refusing to turn over the requested documents is inconsistent with DHS's previous document productions in this matter and is an insufficient reason for noncompliance with our requests," they told Napolitano.

In a separate letter to CDC chief Thomas Frieden, the lawmakers sought similar data by Nov. 26 regarding the overall operation of the program and specifically the agency's testing that determined the assays were not viable for Biowatch.

The Atlanta-based federal public health agency established the Laboratory Response Network, a web of facilities with duties including analyzing filters taken from Biowatch devices for the presence of disease agents. In the event the program identified an actual biological attack, the Centers for Disease Control would manage deployment of medical countermeasures to the affected location.

As with Homeland Security, CDC officials have "provided insufficient responses to our July 19, 2012, inquiry," Upton and Stearns wrote in their message to Frieden.

Toby Merlin, who heads the CDC Preparedness and Emerging Infections Division, in an Oct. 11 telephone briefing with Energy and Commerce aides, "provided information" indicating the agency held key records of the kind sought, but not delivered, to the committee, the letter states.

The CDC official did address the issue of Biowatch assays having difficulties in differentiating between dangerous disease agents and similar but nonthreatening biological materials found in the environment. "Dr. Merlin said he would call such a test result ... a 'false positive,'" the GOP lawmakers said. That comment would appear to counter statements from DHS officials on the matter.

Officials from both agencies by press time on Thursday had not responded to requests for comment on the matter. Keller said the committee had as yet received no response to the latest letters.

 

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