Homeland Security’s BioWatch air samplers, meant to detect a biological attack, have been plagued by false alarms
As Chris Lindley drove to work that morning in August 2008, a call set his heart pounding.
The Democratic National Convention was being held in Denver, and Barack Obama was to accept his party’s presidential nomination before a crowd of 80,000 people that night.
The phone call was from one of Lindley’s colleagues at Colorado’s emergency preparedness agency. The deadly bacterium that causes tularemia — long feared as a possible biological weapon — had been detected at the convention site.
Should they order an evacuation, the state officials wondered? Send inspectors in moon suits? Distribute antibiotics? Delay or move Obama’s speech?
Another question loomed: Could they trust the source of the alert, a billion-dollar government system for detecting biological attacks known as BioWatch?
Six tense hours later, Lindley and his colleagues had reached a verdict: false alarm.
BioWatch had failed — again.
President George W. Bush announced the system’s deployment in his 2003 State of the Union address, saying it would “protect our people and our homeland.” Since then, BioWatch air samplers have been installed inconspicuously at street level and atop buildings in cities across the country — ready, in theory, to detect pathogens that cause anthrax, tularemia, smallpox, plague and other deadly diseases.
But the system has not lived up to its billing. It has repeatedly cried wolf, producing dozens of false alarms in Los Angeles, Detroit, St. Louis, Phoenix, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere, a Los Angeles Times investigation found.
Worse, BioWatch cannot be counted on to detect a real attack, according to confidential government test results and computer modeling.