Report Says Biological Surveillance Falls Short
The nation’s biological surveillance system is “falling short” of its goals — some three years after President Bush ordered the Homeland Security Department to consolidate biological threats uncovered by agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) into a central early warning system — a new report found.
Homeland Security has failed to provide “consistent leadership and staff support to ensure successful execution,” of the National Bio-Surveillance Integration System progam, according to the report, authored by the agency’s Inspector General Richard Skinner.
Skinner found the system has “struggled since its inception” to hire enough staff to effectively manage the program. The report is already creating a stir on Capitol Hill, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, informed Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in a letter that the panel is investigating the management of the program “to assess the adequacy of DHS’s current bio-surveillance efforts.”
The letter was co-authored by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the committee’s investigations panel.
The Homeland Security Department did not immediately respond and the CDC declined to comment. The White House did not respond to a request for an interview from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Bush has promoted the bio-surveillance system, promising that it would “detect, quantify and respond to outbreaks of disease in humans and animals and deliver information quickly” to local, state, national and international public health officials.
Despite Bush’s support, the program was bounced to four different offices in the Homeland Security Department over the last three years before finally finding a home in the Office of Health Affairs.
The program did not have a full-time manager from the department until May 2006, and the current director, Kimothy Smith, is not permanent. There are still not enough staff “to analyze and process biological information,” according to Skinner’s report.
The staff positions that the program did acquire have been plagued by high turnover rates, resulting in a loss of institutional knowledge and a lack of continuity in the program’s direction, the report states.
“Our committee would like to know how our country can be kept safe from bioterrorism if the National Bio-surveillance Integration System does not have a permanent director or permanent staff in place to do the job of coordinating our government’s response to biologic threats,” Stupak says.
Skinner also found that the program’s manager did not provide an outside contractor with “adequate guidance, requirements input or data sources to deliver a fully functional system.” This could result in higher costs and program delays.
Dingell’s letter expressed exasperation with Smith, the acting director of the bio-surveillance program, for refusing to answer questions about a multimillion-dollar contract with Science Applications International Corp. to create an information-sharing network for agencies to access.
“Sounds like a bigger part of a bigger picture of bureaucratic failure,” Steve Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “There are some concrete things that need to be fixed, and they are not getting done.”