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The Government Accountability Office has concluded in a report expected to be released in Washington, D.C., on Monday that the nation’s main defense against biological terrorism — a $1 billion network of air samplers in cities across the country — cannot be counted on to detect an attack.

The BioWatch system, introduced with fanfare by President George W. Bush in 2003, has exasperated public health officials with numerous false alarms, stemming from its inability to distinguish between harmless germs and the lethal pathogens that terrorists would be likely to unleash in an attack, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Timothy M. Persons, the GAO’s chief scientist and lead author of the report, said health and public-safety authorities “need to have assurance that when the system indicates a possible attack, it’s not crying wolf.” U.S. Homeland Security officials cannot credibly offer that assurance, he said.

“You can’t claim it works,” Persons told The Times.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees BioWatch, has repeatedly touted the system’s effectiveness while seeking to upgrade it with new technology.

The GAO report challenges the department’s central claims about BioWatch. It also illuminates the nation’s vulnerability to biological terrorism at a time of heightened concern about the reach and resourcefulness of Islamic State and other extremist groups.

The 100-page document, scheduled for release today, says that Homeland Security “lacks reliable information” about BioWatch’s “technical capabilities to detect a biological attack.” The Los Angeles Times obtained a copy of the report before its formal release.

— City News Service

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