Biosurveillance, Intelligence and Bugs

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce has decided to investigate the creation of the National Biosurveillance Integration System at the Department of Homeland Security.

The operation was mandated by Homeland Security Presidential Directive 10. Its mission is to "to provide early detection and situational awareness of biological events of potential national consequence by acquiring, integrating, analyzing, and disseminating existing human, animal, plant, and environmental biosurveillance system data into a common operating picture," according to the DHS.

The idea for the biosurveillance shop was apparently proposed in a study by Science Applications International Corp. When DHS decided to follow up and outsource the operation, SAIC won the contract. In an Aug. 7 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the committee seems quite focused on the procurement angle. Among other things, it asks for details about the request for proposal, the companies that responded and the process used to selected SAIC.

The committee is also asking for a small mountain of details about the government side of the organization, including the names of all senior managers, pay grades and such.

Hard not to wonder what they think they're going after. But things have not gone as smoothly as they could have at the nascent operation, at least according to a brief analysis in the House Homeland Security Committee's Annual Report Card.

According to the letter to Chertoff, folks from the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee sought answers during a May meeting with Acting Director Kimothy Smith. But he "refused to answer certain questions regarding the contract support for NBIS."

DHS Spokesman Russ Knocke said in an email that "the House letter is that it is completely disingenuous."

"Dr. Smith was there to brief on a different topic and when their questions about NBIS were raised, he very clearly and respectfully stated that he was not prepared to answer their questions at the time, but that we would be glad to get the committee the information it had requested. For two months following the hearing the department sought guidance from the committee on what it specifically wanted to know. The committee did not respond. This has the hallmark political motivation."

A report by the DHS inspector general is scheduled to come out on Tuesday.

By Robert O'Harrow |  August 13, 2007; 6:53 AM ET
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In a quick overview of the 'Report Card,'
it would appear to harbor a Democrat political spin regarding every facet of
homeland security.

Posted by: Jo Davey Cohen | August 13, 2007 9:49 AM

What in the world does this mean to the average American, how is this significant, how is data collected?, these tests performed? What is the system? " acquiring, integrating, analyzing, and disseminating existing human, animal, plant, and environmental biosurveillance system data into a common operating picture,"

Posted by: Elizabeth | August 13, 2007 9:52 AM

Good question Elizabeth, unfortunately O'Harrow doesn't know either.

Posted by: JoeyR | August 13, 2007 10:45 AM

One thing it means to the average American - billions of your tax dollars are going for the surveillance of Americans under circumstances that would not even justify a subpoena from a Bush/Reagan judge like Scalia if the facts were presented. And the test for a subpoena, even in a court that complies with all the Constitutional provisions, is that it's more likely then not a crime has been/is being committed. And if there's "hot pursuit," the standard is even lower. These Tweedle-Dummies don't even want to establish that low threshhold before they spend your money--or rather, before they give wheelbarrows of your tax money to their campaign donor contractors that are the Beltay Bandits. In the meantime, the real crooks are getting away, laughing all the way to the next plot. Terrorists don't have to steal from us. We let our Congressmen do the stealing.

Posted by: AndreaC | August 13, 2007 11:04 PM

good job summing it all up andrea!!!

Posted by: darcy | August 14, 2007 10:57 AM

That was a good question, Elizabeth. The article is very unclear on what biosurveillance is and what it means to you and me. AndreaC need not worry about evil government goons video-taping private citizens and "hot pursuit" issues. Human biosurveillance data is usually de-identified patient records (no names or medical record numbers) gleaned from hospitals and labs. They're looking for anomalies in "normal" disease patterns for the area. A sudden surge in influenza-like illness could mean a flu outbreak or even SARS. Animal surveillance is similar but comes from veterinarians. Plant surveillance looks for disease passed via produce, think tainted spinach and the like. Environmental surveillance can be as simple as looking at air quality and its effect on asthma sufferers. There is also a system deployed in strategic cities around the country that employ "sniffers" looking for chemical and biological agents, indicative of a terrorist attack.

Posted by: JohnP | August 15, 2007 12:39 PM

I am less worried about "government goons" than I am about over-stuffed government contractors. Add to that the stretched thin government co-workers and the auditors, who don't have the time or expertise to strip identifying information from files, and no time to purge files that should be destroyed. The involved government agencies already admitted they have no time or resources to do this job properly. They are stuck doing it poorly. Millions of records have been kept longer then they should, with information that never should have been collected. We are paying for it, while the resources needed for the right actions are never assigned.

Posted by: AndreaC | August 15, 2007 9:46 PM

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