Sensitive DHS report about anthrax at Super Bowl found in plane's seat pocket

  • Amy B Wang
  • The Washington Post
8:16 a.m. Monday, Feb. 5, 2018 News

A CNN employee traveling by air recently discovered sensitive government documents - detailing how the Department of Homeland Security would respond to a bioterrorism attack coinciding with the Super Bowl — that apparently had been left behind in an airplane seat back pocket, the network reported Monday.

The draft reports outlined ways the department could improve after there had been some confusion in recent drills simulating anthrax attacks on Super Bowl Sunday, according to CNN. The reports also came with instructions to keep the documents locked or to shred them when done, the network said.

Images of a cover sheet to the report indicated they were part of DHS's "BioWatch" program, marked "For Official Use Only" and dated December 2017. The BioWatch program, created in 2001 and operating since 2003, is the "nation's only system for early warning of an aerosolized biological attack," according to DHS.

CNN said that a boarding pass and other travel documents found with the BioWatch reports were under the name of Michael V. Walter, who is listed as the program manager for BioWatch with more than 20 years of experience in microbiology and biological warfare research.

It's unclear when the documents were found, or whether it was a CNN reporter or other employee who came across them. CNN said it delayed publishing its article until after Sunday night's Super Bowl so as not to compromise any security plans for the football game, which is typically the most watched television broadcast of the year. More than 67,000 fans were in attendance at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Sunday to watch the Philadelphia Eagles play the New England Patriots, according to an NFL spokesman.

A DHS official declined to answer questions Monday about the documents — including who left them behind or whether there is typically disciplinary action for such a security breach — saying the matter was the subject of an operational review.

"DHS does not comment on personnel matters or potential pending personnel action," the official said.

The simulated anthrax attack drills outlined in the reports were regular exercises meant to improve "coordination, communication and decision-making" in case of a national security threat, DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton said in an email.

"Over the last two years, 27 DHS entities worked closely with our federal partners and local law enforcement in Minneapolis to prepare for the Super Bowl," Houlton said. "It is important that operators regularly exercise their capabilities against a wide range of scenarios in order to effectively counter the changing threat environment. This exercise was a resounding success and was not conducted in response to any specific, credible threat of a bioterrorism attack."

The report left on the plane, however, pointed out certain deficiencies in two anthrax simulation drills conducted under the BioWatch program last year, according to CNN:

Among the findings was that there were "differences of opinion" over how many people had been exposed, "which led to differences of opinion on courses of action."

The reports also noted there was confusion among local health agencies about the meaning of alerts issued during the exercise and with whom information could safely be shared during an emergency.

This "made it difficult for them to assess whether their city was at risk," the documents stated, and "creates a situation where local officials are deciding on courses of action from limited points of view."

The BioWatch program has been met with mixed reviews since it debuted more than 15 years ago. It consists of a network of air-monitoring collectors at more than 30 jurisdictions across the United States. If those collectors detect biological agents, federal and other officials are notified to respond appropriately.

A 2015 audit of the program by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that there was "considerable uncertainty" over whether the system could in fact detect biological threats.

"DHS lacks reliable information about BioWatch Gen-2's technical capabilities to detect a biological attack and therefore lacks the basis for informed cost-benefit decisions about possible upgrades or enhancements to the system," the report stated. "The nation's ability to detect threats against its security requires judicious use of resources directed toward systems whose capabilities can be demonstrated."

The GAO report was prompted by a 2012 investigation of BioWatch by the Los Angeles Times, which identified problems with the detection system, including several false alarms at high-profile events.

DHS officials and others have defended BioWatch as integral to national security. In a formal response to the GAO report, Jim H. Crumpacker, a program manager at the DHS, wrote that "the threat to our environment is constantly evolving," even if the department agreed that the program could be improved in several ways.

"Biological attacks can begin without overt signs; therefore early warning and detection capabilities are essential for mitigating consequences and saving lives," Crumpacker wrote. "BioWatch is a key part of the Nation's layered approach for protection against a catastrophic biological terror attack, and each hour gained in detection translates into lives saved."