The ability to attribute the source of an intentionally released biological threat agent and quickly apprehend and prosecute the perpetrator is essential to our nation’s safety, however, questions remain about whether the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) capabilities have improved since the 2001 anthrax attack, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit report.
Both DHS and FBI have identified gaps in their bioforensics capabilities, “but DHS has not performed a formal bioforensics capability gap analysis,” GAO said, adding, “It is therefore not clear whether DHS and the FBI have identified all of their capability gaps.”
GAO emphasized that, “A capability gap analysis can help identify deficiencies in capabilities and can help support the validation and prioritization of how to address the gaps. DHS and the FBI have identified capability gaps using an informal undocumented process. For example, DHS held informal meetings to seek FBI input on capability gaps associated with recent casework. Gaps identified through this informal process include the inability to characterize unique, novel and engineered agents and ‘unknowns’ (emerging or synthetic organisms); and, understand and communicate uncertainty associated with analyzing complex biological samples, among other things.”
With the lack of a well-documented bioforensics capability gap analysis, GAO said “the rationale for DHS’s resource allocations or its plans for future enhancements to existing capabilities are not clear and thus cannot ensure resources are being targeted to the highest priority gaps.”
In addition, GAO stated the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) have also “identified potential bioforensics capability needs. These needs can generally be grouped into three areas: science, technology and methods, and bioinformatics and data.”
GAO said it also “convened a meeting of experts, with the help of NAS, and these experts updated a list of potential bioforensics capability needs that NAS and OSTP had previously identified within each of these areas. Some of the needs these experts confirmed as still relevant were similar to those DHS and FBI officials have identified, while others were different. For example, like DHS and the FBI, the experts agreed that an ability to characterize genetically engineered agents was needed, but they also suggested that evaluating existing protocols, such as those for DNA sequencing, to determine whether they were validated” is also needed.
GAO said it “believes that this information may be helpful to DHS and the FBI as part of any future bioforensics capability gap analysis they undertake,” and that, “Since 2010, DHS has enhanced some of its bioforensics capabilities, with FBI input, by focusing on developing methods-based capabilities while maintaining agent-based capabilities.”
DHS has funded research and development projects addressing areas such as genome sequencing approaches, which underpin many methods-based bioforensics capabilities, is developing an in-house reference collection for use in investigations and the ability to characterize unique, novel agents as well as ‘unknowns,’ such as synthetic organisms.”
GAO said, “DHS projects that some enhanced capabilities will be complete in about 2025. However, in pursuing enhancements, DHS faces several challenges, including establishing a statistical framework for interpreting bioforensics analyses and associated inferences and communicating them in a court setting, as well as obtaining suitable biological agents and DNA sequences to ensure quality references for use in investigations.”
GAO recommended DHS—in consultation with the FBI—conduct a formal bioforensics capability gap analysis and update it periodically.
DHS concurred with GAO’s recommendation.