Costly Weapon-Detection Plans Are in Disarray, Investigators Say

Expensive Bush administration efforts to closely watch for smuggled radiation and biological agents have proved to be poorly coordinated and of uncertain value, according to reports from congressional researchers.
Expensive Bush administration efforts to closely watch for smuggled radiation and biological agents have proved to be poorly coordinated and of uncertain value, according to reports from congressional researchers. (By Spencer Platt -- Getty Images)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bush administration initiatives to defend the nation against a smuggled nuclear bomb or a biological outbreak or attack remain poorly coordinated, costing billions of tax dollars while basic goals and policies remain incomplete, according to new reports by congressional investigators.

The administration budgeted $2.8 billion in 2007 for nuclear detection but lacks a strategic plan to plug gaps and move beyond its initial goals, such as placing radiation detectors at domestic and overseas ports, according to reports by the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office for a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing that will be held today.

Separately, a five-year-old program to detect the airborne release of biological warfare agents such as anthrax, plague and smallpox in more than 30 major U.S. cities still lacks basic technical data to help medical officials determine how to respond to an alert triggered by the sensors, congressional investigators and state and local officials will report to the House Homeland Security Committee.

In written testimony submitted for a House hearing today, state and local public health laboratory directors were highly critical of the program known as BioWatch, saying it is underfunded, improperly managed and of unclear benefit, despite $400 million in federal spending.

"The BioWatch program has been variously described by my fellow state and local laboratory directors as a parasite to the public health laboratory and squatters in valuable public health laboratory space," said the prepared testimony of Frances Pouch Downes, a Michigan state health official and president of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. "I am hard-pressed to disagree."

DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said that BioWatch guidelines were provided for jurisdictions to create their own operating rules and that the program has paid for its own staff, equipment and materials. A different GAO report recently quoted Energy Department officials praising the DHS for helping shift their focus to detecting nuclear materials overseas away from ports, he added, providing "a more balanced defense of our homeland."

"These criticisms simply don't bear truth," Knocke said.

Democrats are using the Senate and House hearings to air dissatisfaction with the White House's domestic response to the threat from weapons of mass destruction, which was a focus of President Bush in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, his 2004 reelection fight and several presidential security directives. As Bush prepares to leave office in January, critics say that despite progress, his administration's actions have not fulfilled its rhetoric.

For example, according to the CRS and the GAO -- Congress's research and audit arms -- a Department of Homeland Security agency established in April 2005 to develop a global nuclear detection structure across 74 federal programs has identified gaps in its initial strategy focused on cargo screening at land and sea ports.

The DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office has begun pilot efforts to address those holes -- specifically the threat posed by smuggling a weapon or nuclear materials aboard small boats or private aircraft across the border between official entrances -- but "it has not yet developed an overarching strategic plan to guide its transition" to a more comprehensive strategy, according to testimony submitted by GAO official David C. Maurer and released by the Senate panel, chaired by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.).

In a statement, Lieberman said the DNDO's system is incomplete, may have gaps or redundancies, and has no clear measure for success. "DHS must develop a reliable means to assure the American people that major investments in this architecture will in fact make us measurably safer against catastrophic nuclear terrorism," he said.

The House panel, chaired by Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), said that the new National Biosurveillance Integration Center will not be fully operational by September, a deadline set by Congress last year. While the center is supposed to fuse data from medical clinicians, intelligence sources and BioWatch sensors, DHS has reached coordinating agreements with only about half of 11 key federal agencies, such as the Pentagon, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company