In an apparent effort to cover up a potential scandal, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has for months refused to provide congressional leaders with records related to a failed program that was quietly nixed after the agency blew $1 billion on it.
The faulty “life-saving” technology, known as BioWatch, was supposed to detect biological attacks. However, it’s never come close to meeting its goal of accurately detecting pathogens that cause anthrax, tularemia, smallpox, plague and other deadly diseases. Instead it is well known for false alarms and other glitches. In short, it’s turned out to be a worthless money pit for U.S. taxpayers.
The system became such a joke that state and local authorities didn’t bother ordering evacuations when its alarm triggered. In fact, before DHS pulled the plug in BioWatch a few months ago, it was revealed that federal agencies documented 56 false alarms since 2008. Regardless, DHS kept pouring money into it and even planned to invest billions more to upgrade the inept BioWatch system this year. DHS’s chief medical officer even vouched for the upgrade, telling a congressional committee that it was “imperative to saving thousands of lives.”
This outraged several members of Congress—both Democrats and Republicans—who have demanded accountability from DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. The scrutiny forced DHS to put the scheduled multi-billion-dollar BioWatch upgrade on hold, but that hasn’t made the problem disappear as agency heads would like. Federal lawmakers want internal records that could help answer key questions about this outrageous waste.
In July, two congressional committees investigating the matter asked DHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for records related to BioWatch. So far both agencies have failed to comply, forcing the lawmakers who head the panels to write hard-hitting letters to Napolitano and CDC Director Thomas Frieden, reminding of “insufficient responses” to their months-old inquiry.
“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,” says theletter to Napolitano. The congressmen chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the oversight and investigations subcommittee.
The lawmakers indicate in the letter that DHS resisted the effort from the start, but that perhaps an agreement for disclosure was reached; “Although DHS raised concerns with our inquiry and the Committee has attempted to accommodate, the Department continues to withhold key documents more than three months after our initial request.”
Frieden’s letter also says that the CDC gave the committees “insufficient responses” to BioWatch-related requests that date back to July. The agency is involved because it helps DHS coordinate with state and local health authorities that use BioWatch. Also, if there is a biological attack, the CDC delivers emergency medicines. The congressional committees set a new deadline, November 26, to receive the records. Stay tuned.