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DHS BioWatch: A Failure of Oversight and Accountability

BioWatch is the nation's response to HSPD 10 (securing the nation from acts of bioterrorism) and HPSD 21 (public health and safety) managed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It has been funded in excess of $1 billion over the past ten years. It has a controversial past of declaring false negatives and is the recipient of skepticism within Congress and the public health community at large. Furthermore, for a period of years, the BioWatch Program Office deliberately misled the DHS Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) as to the security posture of the system, a system that also contained several critical and high vulnerabilities that were not reported or addressed.

It is important to mention that the BioWatch web portal was hosted on an .org domain. While being hosted on a .org domain, DHS cannot monitor it. This was done by purposeful design by the BioWatch Program Office, which also deployed several subsystems in the BioWatch web portal without informing the DHS OCIO. One of these was a program management application that managed the financials of the program, which, being on a .org domain inaccessible to the federal government, allowed the BioWatch Program Office to use any funds received by Congress in any manner they so chose. There was no oversight to prevent the misappropriation of funds.

From 2012 to 2017, there was spending of over 400 million taxpayer dollars that remain unaccounted for. Other studies indicate that this number could be over $1 billion. What is known is the members of the BioWatch Program Office during this time used BioWatch program funding to attend numerous high-profile events, such as the Super Bowl, NBA playoffs, the Rose Bowl, and the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, as well as multiple Las Vegas conventions.

During this time, BioWatch was the only nationwide early detection system that served both a national security and public health mission. Its primary purpose was to detect pathogens and provide early detection of acts of bioterrorism and/or pandemics (specifically, pathogens related to anthrax and influenza) to enable the rapid deployment of national resources to contain and mitigate the outbreak. This system was supposed to provide early warning, detection, and tracking of pandemic outbreaks, such as COVID-19. The program and system were still operational at the time of the recent COVID-19 outbreak.

Hear more firsthand from the former information systems security manager for DHS BioWatch and whistleblower regarding fraud, waste, abuse, gross mismanagement, and mishandling of classified information within the BioWatch program.