Federal Biological Surveillance Program Progressing Slowly

President Bush's program to rapidly detect biological attacks and disease outbreaks has been anything but speedy in getting started, the victim of bureaucratic bungling, a federal watchdog says.

Administration officials acknowledge problems but say the system has begun operating — 21 months after Bush announced the surveillance initiative and three years after he ordered the effort in a presidential directive.

The program kept bouncing between sections of the Homeland Security Department. Managers were not hired. The approach to the surveillance kept changing. And the necessary technology wasn't operating, the Homeland Security inspector general says in a report obtained by The Associated Press.

Underscoring the importance of the issue, the report comes as Britain is struggling with an outbreak of highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease, a threat to farm economies and tourism.

The Homeland Security Department's chief spokesman, Russ Knocke, did not dispute the findings but said Friday the problems are being addressed and the program is operating — though not fully.

"The program now has critical leadership and support from senior officials. We are in the process of hiring nine full-time employees dedicated just to this program. We have established agreements with six federal agencies for additional analytic and technical support personnel who will start arriving this fall," Knocke said.

"There is more distance to go, but I ask you to come back a year from now and you will find a vastly different and improved program."

Congressional investigators dispute the department's optimistic assessment of the National Bio-Surveillance Integration System (NBIS).

"The IG's report documents bureaucratic muddle at its worst," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "We didn't realize what an understatement it was when NBIS told us its system was not operational."

"More than three years after the president announced the creation of NBIS it still has no permanent director or staff, and its computer system is still under development. This does not appear to be a functional operation," Dingell said.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the delays were inexcusable.

"It is no wonder that the program failed to meet expectations when it has been passed around like a hot potato since its creation," he said.

Bush announced the surveillance initiative in a Nov. 1, 2005, speech at the National Institutes of Health.

"This initiative will help us rapidly detect, quantify and respond to outbreaks of disease in humans and animals, and deliver information quickly to state and local and national and international public health officials," the president said.

The nation would be "more likely to be able to stop, slow or limit the spread of the pandemic and save American lives," Bush said, referring to the possibility of a massive flu outbreak.

Inspector General Richard Skinner's report said that prior to the president's speech, program officials sensed no urgency. Following the remarks, the program began receiving office space and staff members who were contractors, not government employees.

By late 2005, the program appeared to be moving forward but not enough to overcome new setbacks, the report said.

For example, as the program prepared to request proposals for companies to supply new technology, a contracting officer ordered refinements that delayed the bids for several months. Then, the department tried to use a new contracting system and that required revisions that caused several additional months of delays.

This is not the first time the inspector general criticized his department's biological surveillance efforts.

In January, the internal watchdog found deficiencies in an earlier program called BioWatch, which is designed to detect releases of biological agents in the air through monitoring and laboratory analysis.

The earlier report found problems in field collections, transport of filters and laboratory operations — any of which could contaminate the samples.