SEPTEMBER 10, 2012
After blowing $1 billion on faulty “live-saving” technology that was supposed to detect biological attacks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is quietly pulling the plug on the failed system.
Known as BioWatch, the program has turned out to be a worthless money pit for U.S. taxpayers. The mainstream newspaper that first exposed its shortcomings calls it the biodefender that cries wolf because it’s been plagued by false alarms and other failures. It has never come close to meeting its goal of accurately detecting pathogens that cause anthrax, tularemia, smallpox, plague and other deadly diseases.
Instead the technology has produced dozens of false alarms and cannot be counted on to detect a real attack, according to government tests cited in the story. Since 2008 federal agencies have documented 56 BioWatch false alarms so state and local authorities don’t even bother ordering evacuations or taking any other type of action when the system’s alarm is triggered.
Regardless, the DHS decided to pour more money into it, announcing that this year it would invest an additional $3.1 billion to upgrade the inept BioWatch system. In fact, just a few months ago the DHS’s chief medical officer told a congressional committee that the costly upgrade was “imperative to saving thousands of lives.”
However, several members of Congress—both Democrats and Republicans—have demanded accountability from DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano after reading about BioWatch’s many shortcomings in the paper. The various lawmakers have independently sent Napolitano separate inquiries asking for documents on BioWatch and two House subcommittees have scheduled hearings to address the matter this week.
Under fire from the media and now Congress, the DHS has responded with a three-sentence posting to a government website saying that it will essentially delay the multi-billion-dollar BioWatch upgrade. No further explanation was offered, according to a follow-up piece in the paper that broke the story, and a DHS spokesman declined to comment.
The agency was quick to defend its deficient program when the media first published stories criticizing it, however. In a piece posted on its website, the DHS insisted that “unsubstantiated” media reports “incorrectly claimed that BioWatch is prone to false alarms that create confusion among local officials and first responders.” The DHS further assured that more than 7 million tests have been performed by dedicated public health lab officials and there has never been a false positive result.
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