BioWatch faces congressional hearing this week

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WASHINGTON — A decade ago, then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge oversaw the start of BioWatch, the nationwide system designed to detect airborne releases of anthrax or other biological weapons.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush had announced that BioWatch would "protect our people and our homeland."

Ridge's expectations were not so high.

"Everyone knew it was a primitive, labor-intensive, fairly unsophisticated attempt," Ridge recalled in a recent interview.

On Tuesday, a congressional panel is scheduled to question officials publicly about the program under oath. The House Energy and Commerce Committee began examining BioWatch last year in response to reports in the Los Angeles Times about the system's deficiencies.

In more than 30 U.S. cities, BioWatch units on rooftops and other outdoor locations suck air through dry filters, which are removed every 24 hours and tested at public health laboratories. BioWatch samplers have also been deployed at major spectator events, including the Super Bowl and national political conventions.

The system has been beset by false alarms — nearly 150 to date — some of which triggered tense deliberations over whether to order evacuations, distribute emergency medicines or shut down public venues. In each case, authorities decided to disregard BioWatch.

Confidential government tests and computer modeling have pointed out an even more serious failing: BioWatch could not be relied on to detect an actual germ attack, according to people familiar with its operations.

The federal government has spent more than $1 billion on BioWatch, and the Obama administration has taken preliminary steps to spend billions more on an automated "Generation 3," in which air samples would be continuously analyzed within each unit.

Deployment of Generation 3, however, has stalled. In March, members of the House and Senate appropriations committees — citing "serious concerns" about Generation 3 — said they were declining the Obama administration's request for nearly $40 million for further testing and evaluation of the technology.

The committees reiterated their request that — before a final contract is awarded for the automated system — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano "certify ... that the science used to develop the technology is proven."

Napolitano's subordinates have repeatedly played down or denied flaws in the existing system.

Last year, the department's chief medical officer, Dr. Alexander Garza, a presidential appointee, asserted that BioWatch had never generated a "false positive."

Most of BioWatch's false alarms were triggered by organisms that are genetically similar to lethal pathogens but pose no threat to humans, according to people knowledgeable about the system.

Garza maintained these were not false positives because BioWatch found something in the environment, albeit not the deadly microbes it was intended to detect.

Experts appointed by the National Academy of Sciences have rejected this viewpoint — concluding in a 2010 report that all misidentifications of a pathogen by BioWatch were false positives that "signaled the potential occurrence of a terrorist attack when none has occurred."

The House investigative panel said in a statement last week that BioWatch "has been plagued by false alarms and other failures." According to information newly verified by federal officials, BioWatch has generated at least 149 false alarms.

Garza resigned his post this year to accept a private-sector job. Congressional investigators have questioned others at the Homeland Security Department and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which administers the nation's stockpile of medicines to treat those exposed to a germ attack.

The investigators have sought to learn why Homeland Security Department officials did not do more to avert false detections of the bacterium tularemia after BioWatch's first false alarms for it in late 2003. Tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, can infect and in rare instances kill humans at relatively low concentrations.

In addition to pressing officials about BioWatch's troubles, investigators have traced how the system functions on a daily basis.

In the event of an intentional release of a pathogen, 36 hours or more could pass before lab testing of BioWatch filters alerted officials to the attack. By then, victims might be crowding emergency rooms, undermining the notion that BioWatch would enable authorities to quickly safeguard a stricken area or dispense medications in time to prevent sickness or death.

BioWatch was installed in 2003 amid widespread fear of biological terrorism — fear stoked, Ridge said, by the fall 2001 anthrax letter attacks, which killed five people.

The FBI ultimately traced those attacks to a U.S. government scientist, Bruce E. Ivins, based at the Army's biowarfare research center at Fort Detrick, Md. Ivins committed suicide in July 2008 after learning that prosecutors were preparing to file charges against him.

Given BioWatch's performance, Ridge said his former department should be wary of sinking more money into it. BioWatch, he said, evokes the $1 billion attempt — now abandoned — to use experimental technology as an invisible fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

"What (Homeland Security) cannot afford to have if it's going to sustain any credibility with the public is the same kind of thing they did along the border," Ridge said.