recommended reading

DHS defends acquisition plan for bioweapon detectors

A slide prepared for testing for biological hazards.

A slide prepared for testing for biological hazards. // Ben Margot/AP

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Thursday defended plans to press ahead in vetting and acquiring a new generation of sensors designed to provide early warning of a biological weapons attack, even as auditors and some lawmakers urged it to pause and reassess the effort.

Before finalizing a blueprint three years ago for procuring a third generation of Biowatch detectors, the Homeland Security Department carried out a faulty evaluation that failed to ask if the new equipment was necessary or would prove effective once deployed, the congressional Government Accountability Office said in a report issued this week. The developmental technology is designed to autonomously gather and evaluate air samples for the presence of dangerous organisms such as anthrax between four and six times each day; Biowatch gear now in 30 U.S. cities requires the physical removal of filters on a routine basis for assessment in local laboratories.

The department accepted GAO recommendations to re-examine the necessity for the effort and possible alternatives, as well as to "develop performance, schedule, and cost information in accordance with guidance and good acquisition practices." However, it rejected advice from auditors to delay procurement efforts until completing the administrative steps.

"All of those things take time, and during that time period, we do not want to delay ... the technology side of the coin," Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Alexander Garza said at a joint hearing convened on Thursday by two House Homeland Security subcommittees

Department officials last month approved plans to move forward with "an analysis of alternatives" that would incorporate "testing of a small number of detector units from each competitively selected vendor," Garza said in written testimony.

"There is not going to be any performance testing during that time period," he told lawmakers during a question-and-answer session. "When you come to the end of the day, we are going to be aligned with exactly what GAO is saying, to complete these documents before we start performance testing."

Some lawmakers, though, voiced concern over the planning by Homeland Security, which has spent more than $150 million to date on the development of Generation 3 scanning technology. Initial testing of preliminary next-generation scanners showed the technology to lack sufficient resiliency and sensitivity to perform reliably, according to GAO investigators.

Further evaluating the gear while also examining other options could "allow payment for a product that the government will never use," House Homeland Security emergency preparedness subcommittee Ranking Member Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) said in prepared remarks. She added that such timing could also pave the way "for a predetermined outcome."

The need for a self-operating biological-weapon sensor network appeared to have been a "foregone conclusion" among DHS officials, the lawmaker suggested. Funds already spent on the next-generation system might have been better used for "grants to state and local governments that would have invested in viable and locally based solutions," she said.

The Generation 3 system is projected to require $3.1 billion during its initial half-decade of use; the department has so spent roughly $1 billion on older Biowatch sensors. The planned upgrade would extend the network to approximately 20 additional urban areas, in total enabling monitoring of areas where around nine-tenths of U.S. inhabitants reside, the Los Angeles Times reported previously.

Separately, Garza attempted to explain technical shortcomings reported in Biowatch sensors fielded since 2003. Congressional auditors said the current equipment has produced "more than 100" inaccurate warnings of disease threats, according to earlier reporting.

The DHS official attributed the alerts to genetic similarities between potential weapon agents and naturally occurring biological materials.

"For a particular organism, there is a subspecies of the organism very, very closely linked, so closely linked that when Biowatch [launched] in 2003 there was not a test to distinguish between the different subspecies of organisms," he said. "By and large, what we find is that very low-level subspecies of that organism.

"Many people didn't know that this even existed in the environment and some of the cities that we're in, and so it was a surprise to them that we were finding this there," the DHS official added. "We rewrote the book on where bacteria live."

The department responded by "looking at ways to improve our detection technology," he said, referencing Defense Department efforts to develop more accurate sampling methods.

Threatwatch Alert

Thousands of cyber attacks occur each day

See the latest threats

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Close [ x ] More from Nextgov
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from Nextgov.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • Effective Ransomware Response

    This whitepaper provides an overview and understanding of ransomware and how to successfully combat it.

    Download
  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.