A Biowatch air sampler in the Washington, D.C., subway. (Lawrence Livermore / National…)
WASHINGTON — Year after year, health officials meeting at invitation-only government conferences leveled with one another about Biowatch, the nation's system for detecting deadly pathogens that might be unleashed into the air by terrorists.
They shared stories of repeated false alarms — mistaken warnings of germ attacks from Los Angeles to New York City. Some questioned whether BioWatch worked at all.
They did not publicize their misgivings. Indeed, the sponsor of the conferences, the U.S. Homeland Security Department, insists that BioWatch's operations, in more than 30 cities, be kept mostly secret.
Now, congressional investigators want Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to open the books on the 9-year-old program and explain why $3.1 billion in additional spending is warranted.
The move by the House Energy and Commerce Committee — spurred by reports in the Los Angeles Times about BioWatch's deficiencies — puts the program at a crossroads.
On one side is mounting evidence that the technology does not work. On the other are companies eager to tap federal contracts, politicians fearful of voting against any program created to fight terrorism, and a top Homeland Security official who says the program is functioning properly.
Government records show that BioWatch signaled attacks more than 100 times when none had occurred. Nor is the system sensitive enough to reliably detect low yet infectious concentrations of such pathogens as anthrax, smallpox or plague, according to specialists familiar with test results and computer modeling. Another defect is BioWatch's inability to distinguish between particular pathogens that are genetically similar, but benign.
Lab and field tests found similar problems in the latest technology intended for BioWatch, "Generation 3." The congressional investigators are seeking internal documents illuminating BioWatch's performance, plus the private comments of Napolitano's top science and technology advisor, Dr. Tara O'Toole, who recommended killing Generation 3.
O'Toole's skepticism is shared by Dr. Donald A. Henderson, a renowned epidemiologist who led the global eradication of smallpox. Henderson, a federal anti-terrorism advisor when BioWatch was launched in 2003, says he has yet to see a "scientific justification" for it.
"It has never stood the test of rationality," Henderson said. "This whole concept is just preposterous."
But as Napolitano weighs whether to deploy Generation 3 — at the cost of $3.1 billion over its first five years — the program will not be easy to scale back.
The company in line to install Generation 3, Northrop Grumman Corp., is a major donor to federal campaigns with a broad presence in Washington.
From 2004 to 2012, the company's political action committee gave more than $6 million to congressional candidates, campaign finance records show. Northrop Grumman, a top defense contractor, ranked No. 10 this year among all PAC donors to congressional campaigns.
Northrop Grumman also hired the former head of BioWatch, Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, as an advisor to assist its pursuit of the Generation 3 contract.
On Sept. 27, Runge told invitees to the Harvard Faculty Club that a survey he designed for what he called "homeland security related professionals" had found support for deploying the new technology, regardless of potential shortcomings.
Rather than wait for more research to refine Generation 3, Runge told the gathering, "the respondents seem to be saying … 'Deploy the detectors, even if they can't pick up every intentional pathogen or genetic variation, and deal with the problems later.'"
Runge, who provided his prepared remarks to The Times, said Northrop Grumman solicited his advice a few months after he left the government in 2008 and paid him an hourly rate. The consulting arrangement ended in summer 2009, he said.
Runge said the company paid him to explain how the Homeland Security Department "is thinking, how Congress is thinking, about the future of biodetection." Among those he briefed, Runge said, was Northrop Grumman's project manager for Generation 3.
In 2010 and 2011, Northrop Grumman donated a total of $100,000 to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group, which, beginning in July, circulated three commentaries supporting federal funding for BioWatch and Generation 3. The donations were disclosed in the group's annual reports.
Steven P. Bucci, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, wrote on July 11, "BioWatch is far from an 'unnecessary expenditure.' Congress should thus continue to fund the program."
The third Heritage essay, issued Dec. 12 and also written by Bucci, said that although BioWatch was "only marginally effective," Napolitano and President Obama should stay the course. "Cutting funding to this project," he wrote, "leaves us vulnerable in a way that will cripple our future security." Bucci said his writings were his own.