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.