DHS Defends Acquisition Plan for Bioweapon Detectors

September 14, 2012

The Obama administration on Thursday defended plans to press ahead in vetting and acquiring a new generation of sensors designed to provide early warning of a biological weapons attack, even as auditors and some lawmakers urged it to pause and reassess the effort.

Before finalizing a blueprint three years ago for procuring a third generation of Biowatch detectors, the Homeland Security Department carried out a faulty evaluation that failed to ask if the new equipment was necessary or would prove effective once deployed, the congressional Government Accountability Office said in a report issued this week. The developmental technology is designed to autonomously gather and evaluate air samples for the presence of dangerous organisms such as anthrax between four and six times each day; Biowatch gear now in 30 U.S. cities requires the physical removal of filters on a routine basis for assessment in local laboratories.

The department accepted GAO recommendations to re-examine the necessity for the effort and possible alternatives, as well as to "develop performance, schedule, and cost information in accordance with guidance and good acquisition practices." However, it rejected advice from auditors to delay procurement efforts until completing the administrative steps.

"All of those things take time, and during that time period, we do not want to delay ... the technology side of the coin," Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Alexander Garza said at a joint hearing convened on Thursday by two House Homeland Security subcommittees

Department officials last month approved plans to move forward with "an analysis of alternatives" that would incorporate "testing of a small number of detector units from each competitively selected vendor," Garza said in written testimony.

"There is not going to be any performance testing during that time period," he told lawmakers during a question-and-answer session. "When you come to the end of the day, we are going to be aligned with exactly what GAO is saying, to complete these documents before we start performance testing."

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