Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Remember the ricin scares and anthrax attacks in this country?
In 1995, two members of a Minnesota militia group were convicted of possession of ricin which they had produced themselves for use in retaliation against local government officials.
In 2001, anthrax was delivered by mail to U.S. media and government offices. There were five deaths as a result.
These events seem so long ago.
After the anthrax attacks, George W. Bush announced an ambitious effort for the government to develop an early-warning network against these dangerous agents. Although $21 billion has been spent, the results have been mixed:
BioWatch, which had cost nearly $1 billion to install and operate by then, took up to 36 hours to gather and analyze potential pathogens. Worse, its sensors had falsely warned of dozens of germ attacks in major cities — including at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008.
But four years ago the Department of Homeland Security identified a Silicon Valley company, NVS Technologies. The company was working on “a portable device that would swiftly and accurately analyze air samples from sensors deployed nationwide, and determine whether they contained anthrax spores or other lethal germs,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
The reviews by several scientists with the government were excellent:
‘NVS has done a tremendous job in fulfilling our requirements,’ Segaran Pillai, Homeland Security’s chief medical and science advisor, wrote in a seven-page internal report dated June 13, 2013. He recommended continued funding for NVS ‘to ensure a successful outcome for the Nation.’
Nevertheless, in February 2014 –six months before the NVS engineers were going to deliver a prototype-the work was stopped. The new person put in charge of Pillai’s division was Donald Woodbury. (Woodbury had spent much of his career at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which developed stealth technology and other sophisticated tools for the Pentagon.) He wasn’t convinced of the NVS technology and stated that the government could find other commercial technology and identify a better use of taxpayer money. He noted Pillai’s expertise, but felt it was a responsible decision regarding government resources, even after a report by the Inspector General John Roth in February 2015 that stated, “We did not identify evidence to substantiate any of the concerns.” By the end of 2016, Woodbury had retired from Homeland Security.
Meanwhile Biowatch still requires 36 hours to identify a germ, while the NVS Technology was supposed to work in less than an hour.
As a result of a contract dispute, a trial began on September 12 before an administrative judge of the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals. Although the trial is scheduled to run for three days, results may not be forthcoming for weeks. NVS hopes to prove that the government acted in “bad faith,” which is defined as an “intentional dishonest act by not fulfilling legal or contractual obligations, misleading another, entering into an agreement without the intention or means to fulfill it, or violating basic standards of honesty in dealing with others.” I have learned that bad faith is difficult to prove.
For anyone who wonders if bioterrorism should be a serious concern, let me review the dangers of these substances:
Although there are more than 1,200 biological agents that could be used to cause illness or death, relatively few possess the necessary characteristics to make them ideal candidates for biological warfare or terrorism agents. The ideal biological agents are relatively easy to acquire, process, and use. Only small amounts (on the order of pounds and often less) would be needed to kill or incapacitate hundreds of thousands of people in a metropolitan area. Biological warfare agents are easy to hide and difficult to detect or protect against. They are invisible, odorless, tasteless, and can be spread silently.
This link also provides information on how these agents can be delivered, detected and protected against.
In reviewing this situation, I’m trying to figure out the reasons for the Donald Woodbury’s cancellation of a project that had met milestones, one that received exemplary reviews by those who had worked with the company, and that was about to provide a prototype. And no one was able to reverse his decision. To date, as far as I can tell, the BioWatch program is still unreliable.
My questions are:
Do you find the motivation for the cancellation reasonable?
What are the odds that the NVS Technologies will win its “bad faith” case?
Do you think the contract should be re-instated and the work should continue?
Do you think this kind of project against bioterrorism should be pursued?
What other thoughts do you have about this subject?Published in