Speed Reads

National Security

The feds' state-of-the-art bioterrorism program hasn't uncovered anything more threatening than a dead rabbit

For terrorist organizations like the Islamic State, Washington, D.C., is the number one target for obvious reasons: It is the heart of U.S. operations, it is the home of the president — and it has avoided a major terrorist attack.

Part of this is thanks to expensive counterterrorism programs that are in place to stop anything from a nightclub shooting to an improvised nuclear device. But in this day and age, the threat to the capital is more likely to come from a lone wolf attacker. Despite the enormous budget that goes toward thwarting a handful of dedicated terrorists, former Pentagon official Michael Sheehan told Newsweek that the country needs to scale back on the "obscene" spending that goes toward "activities that have a very marginal impact on our safety."

Take, for example, the bioterrorism program:

Since 2003, taxpayers have contributed $1.3 billion to the feds' BioWatch program, a network of pathogen detectors deployed in D.C. and 33 other cities [...] "The BioWatch program was a mistake from the start," a former top federal emergency medicine official tells Newsweek on condition of anonymity, saying he fears retaliation from the government for speaking out. The well-known problems with the detectors, he says, are both highly technical and practical. "Any sort of thing can blow into its filter papers, and then you are wrapping yourself around an axle," trying to figure out if it's real. Of the 149 suspected pathogen samples collected by BioWatch detectors nationwide, he reports, "none were a threat to public health." A 2003 tularemia alarm in Texas was traced to a dead rabbit. [Newsweek]

A program meant to detect cargo for radiation is also imprecise. "False positives, from such naturally radiating material as kitty litter, bananas, and ceramics, drove operators crazy, 'reduc[ing] the sense of urgency among those who respond to them,'" the Nuclear Threat Initiative said, as relayed by Newsweek. "Between May 2001 and March 2005, there were reportedly 10,000 false alarms."