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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Mass-Gathering Events Like the Super Bowl Remind Us That Post-9/11 Security From Biological Attacks Still Lacking More Than 20 Years Later

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, changed our daily lives and the federal approach to security in ways that we still experience today. How we move through airports and tolerate more biometric and video surveillance across major cities are two examples. The two of us were privileged, as the chairman of the Senate Committee from which the creation of the Homeland Security Department came and the Department’s first Secretary, to be much involved in the restructuring of the federal government after 9/11 which we believe improved our homeland safety and security in many ways.

Even the Super Bowl was changed by 9/11. Before that fateful day, the Super Bowl had always been played in January. The NFL postponed a week of regular-season games in the aftermath of 9/11 which pushed the playoffs back, resulting in the first Super Bowl played in February, as it remains to this day.

One thing that has not changed in all these years – and that continues to frustrate us – is our nation’s inability to quickly detect and respond to the release of deadly biological agents. As the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal agencies work with the NFL to prepare for the Super Bowl in Las Vegas on February 11, we are very troubled that we have not done all we could to help them do their jobs more effectively. The public is still at too much risk of biological illness, especially where large numbers of people gather. We cannot allow another year to pass with this broken system.

This problem dates back to 2003, when the federal government launched BioWatch, a DHS system of nationally distributed detectors that sample the air for specific harmful pathogens in a few dozen U.S. cities. Ideally, if a terrorist were to drop, for instance, a vial of anthrax spores onto a subway platform, BioWatch would quickly detect it. The problem is BioWatch simply does not work.

Rather than improving over time by incorporating the latest technological advancements, BioWatch instead relies on the same technology first installed 20 years ago. It relies on the wind blowing in optimal directions. It takes up to 36 hours to be able to alert for the possible presence of pathogens. And, it has limited ability to differentiate between normal background and deadly organisms.

Making a bad situation worse, the federal agencies involved in determining what to do with BioWatch test results have often disagreed as to which course of action to take and do not always consult on-the-ground first responders, even though many response decisions fall to state and local leadership. In short, it is ineffective in assisting first responders such as those preparing to protect fans at the Super Bowl.

We will again detail the shortcomings of BioWatch and provide specific recommendations on how it can be successfully fixed this spring, when the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, which we have co-chaired for ten years, releases an update of our 2015 foundational report, the National Blueprint for Biodefense.

Much of the work of our Commission has been enacted by successive Administrations and Congress, resulting in numerous improvements in the way the federal government prepares for and responds to biological attacks and pandemics. We are proud of those achievements. However, BioWatch continues to be a gaping hole in our national defense.

DHS has attempted to acquire next generation technology for BioWatch in response to these concerns, including with its Biodetection in the 21st Century program, which the Department has turned on and off several times. In the meantime, even setting aside events like the Super Bowl with the highest Special Event Assessment Ratings, our nation’s largest metropolitan areas simply do not have the tools they need on a daily basis to quickly identify, prevent, or better respond to what could easily become mass-casualty biological events.

On-again-off-again programs and continued funding of nonfunctional technology are not an example of good government. The Department of Defense developed some new technology that showed promise and met with approval from the localities where it was piloted, including at the sight of another enormous American mass gathering – the Indianapolis 500. DHS should pick up where DOD left off, instead of starting again from scratch. For its part, Congress needs to make clear it is no longer willing to pour taxpayer dollars into non-functional BioWatch detectors. It’s not a deterrent if it doesn’t work, and if it’s not a deterrent, it is a waste of money.

With wars now raging in Ukraine and Gaza, nation states such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea actively working to develop biological weapons, and terrorists trying to obtain biological agents to attack us, the United States must urgently invest to improve this critical missing part of our homeland security.

Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge
Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge
Joseph Lieberman is an American politician, lobbyist, and attorney who served as a United States senator from Connecticut from 1989 to 2013. A former member of the Democratic Party, he was its nominee for vice president of the United States in the 2000 U.S. presidential election. During his final term in office, he was officially listed as an independent Democrat and caucused with and chaired committees for the Democratic Party. Lieberman was elected as a Reform Democrat in 1970 to the Connecticut Senate, where he served three terms as Majority Leader. After an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1980, he served as the Connecticut Attorney General from 1983 to 1989. He narrowly defeated Republican Party incumbent Lowell Weicker in 1988 to win election to the U.S. Senate and was re-elected in 1994, 2000, and 2006. He was the Democratic Party nominee for Vice President in the 2000 presidential election, running with presidential nominee and then Vice President Al Gore, and becoming the first Jewish candidate on a U.S. major party presidential ticket. In the 2000 presidential election, Gore and Lieberman won the popular vote by a margin of more than 500,000 votes but lost the deciding Electoral College to the Republican George W. Bush/Dick Cheney ticket 271–266. He also unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination in the 2004 U.S. presidential election. During his Senate re-election bid in 2006, Lieberman lost the Democratic primary election but won re-election in the general election as a third party candidate under the Connecticut for Lieberman party label. Never a member of that party, he remained a registered Democrat while he ran. Lieberman was officially listed in Senate records for the 110th and 111th Congresses as an Independent Democrat, and sat as part of the Senate Democratic Caucus. After his speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention in which he endorsed John McCain for president, he no longer attended Democratic Caucus leadership strategy meetings or policy lunches. On November 5, 2008, he met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to discuss his future role with the Democratic Party. Ultimately, the Senate Democratic Caucus voted to allow him to keep the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Subsequently, he announced that he would continue to caucus with the Democrats. Before the 2016 election, he endorsed Hillary Clinton for president and in 2020 endorsed Joe Biden for president. As senator, Lieberman introduced and championed the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 and legislation that led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. During debate on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as the crucial 60th vote needed to pass the legislation, his opposition to the public health insurance option was critical to its removal from the resulting bill signed by President Barack Obama. || Tom Ridge became the first Director of the Office of Homeland Security following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. On January 24, 2003, Ridge became the first Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. During his tenure, Ridge worked with more than 180,000 employees from a combined 22 components to come together as one agency to strengthen our borders, provide for intelligence analysis and infrastructure protection, improve the use of science and technology to counter weapons of mass destruction, and to create a comprehensive response and recovery division. Ridge served the nation’s first Secretary of Homeland Security until February 1, 2005. Ridge was twice elected Governor of Pennsylvania, serving from 1995 to 2001. He kept his promise to make Pennsylvania "a leader among states and a competitor among nations." Governor Ridge's aggressive technology strategy helped fuel the state's advances in the priority areas of economic development, education, health and the environment. Born Aug. 26, 1945, in Pittsburgh's Steel Valley, Governor Ridge was raised in a working class family in veterans' public housing in Erie. He earned a scholarship to Harvard, graduating with honors in 1967. After his first year at The Dickinson School of Law, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served as an infantry staff sergeant in Vietnam, earning the Bronze Star for Valor. After returning to Pennsylvania, he earned his law degree and was in private practice before becoming assistant district attorney in Erie County. He was elected to Congress in 1982. He was the first Congressman to have served as an enlisted man in the Vietnam War, and was overwhelmingly re-elected five times.

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