Reliable Security Information

Ricin, the super-duper defense lab and out-sourcing

The trial of accused ricin mailer Matthew Buquet has been pushed off until next year. The reason? Because there is only one lab in the country, a super-duper one, that does the forensic ricin determinations needed in the case, according to the judge. But is this really true? Come along inside, it's an interesting story.

Accused ricin mailer Matthew Buquet of Spokane, WA.

Today, from a Washington state newspaper:

The federal trial of a Spokane man charged with sending a poison letter to President Barack Obama has been delayed until next year because of the complexity of the case, U.S. District Court Judge Lonny Suko ruled on Tuesday.

Suko pushed back the trial of Matthew Ryan Buquet, 37, until May 5. It was supposed to begin later this month.

Suko agreed with lawyers on both sides that the complexity of the case, including dealing with a deadly poison called ricin, made a speedy trial impossible.

"There is only one lab that can process this evidence because of the nature of the toxin involved," assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Van Marter told the judge.

The lab being referred to is the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center and, more specifically, its National Bioforensic Analysis Center, or NBFAC.

The NBACC homepage does not list the cost of construction but material from the web pegged its estimated price from 120-150 million dollars. It is run by Battelle under a contract for 500 million.

"NBACC's National Bioforensic Analysis Center (NBFAC) conducts bioforensic analysis of evidence from a bio-crime or terrorist attack to attain a 'biological fingerprint' to identify perpetrators and determine the origin and method of attack," reads its homepage.

"NBFAC is designated by Presidential Directive to be the lead federal facility to conduct and facilitate the technical forensic analysis and interpretation of materials recovered following a biological attack in support of the appropriate lead federal agency. On January 12, 2007, NBFAC achieved ISO 17025 accreditation, the most rigorous international standard of testing and calibration by which a laboratory can be assessed. Through this achievement, NBFAC has established itself as a model for bioforensic laboratory practices."

It certainly sounds like the expensive NBACC has all the tools necessary to process ricin samples.

But does it?

In a recent domestic ricin case dating from last year, I was consulted as Senior Fellow at Globalsecurity.Org for my expertise in ricin terrorism.

In that case the NBACC outsourced the government's ricin analysis and characterization to another lab, American International Biotechnology Services (AIBiotech) in Richmond, VA.

This was a startling thing. Why did the country's premier bioterrorism research facility outsource its lab work to another firm? The NBACC was built, and -- indeed -- its homepage explicitly states that its mission was to have its highly accredited facilities be a model for bioforensic laboratory practice.

A colleague, Milton Leitenberg, upon hearing of the NBACC procedure, asked sources in the US biodefense community what was thought of this. No answers were provided.

So, yes -- indeed, with all the shuffling of samples and evidence through offices and labs, it is easy to understand why a ricin trial would be put off.

But, strictly speaking, it's not because only one lab can (or does) the work.

And it shows that, as in many things, the taxpayer does not get good value for dollar, or even cheaper work, when everything is outsourced as knee-jerk procedure. In fact, the opposite.

Today's Washington Post featured a news piece on Booz Allen Hamilton and the outsourcing of work in the national security megaplex.

Near the end, there was this:

But the growth in contracting in defense and homeland security work continues. That has been fueled by several factors -- ongoing public worry about terrorism, antipathy toward big government and an evolution in Washington's revolving-door culture that provides extraordinary rewards to top government officials who go private, experts say.

Yet even outsourcing's most vocal skeptics agree contractors are here to stay, despite what they contend are illusory savings.

"Curbing the use of contractors would be difficult or impossible," said Chuck Alsup, a retired Army intelligence officer and vice president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, an Arlington County-based association of private companies and individual experts. "It would be, frankly, unwise."

BioWatch is a now infamous and expensive government program, put together in the aftermath of the anthrax mailer, to detect aerial release of pathogens in major American cities.

After more than ten years, it really does not work.

In 2012, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of news stories on it that tore apart the program's reputation.

Last year, David Willman of the Los Angeles Times wrote:

President George W. Bush announced the system's deployment in his 2003 State of the Union address, saying it would "protect our people and our homeland." Since then, BioWatch air samplers have been installed inconspicuously at street level and atop buildings in cities across the country -- ready, in theory, to detect pathogens that cause anthrax, tularemia, smallpox, plague and other deadly diseases.

But the system has not lived up to its billing. It has repeatedly cried wolf, producing dozens of false alarms in Los Angeles, Detroit, St. Louis, Phoenix, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere, a Los Angeles Times investigation found ...

Federal agencies documented 56 BioWatch false alarms -- most of them never disclosed to the public -- through 2008. More followed.

The ultimate verdict on BioWatch is that state and local health officials have shown no confidence in it. Not once have they ordered evacuations or distributed emergency medicines in response to a positive reading.

"I just think it's a colossal waste of money," one scientist for the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment told the newspaper.

Even my hometown has been affected by BioWatch's failures.

Wrote the Times:

Dr. Takashi Wada, health officer for Pasadena from 2003 to 2010, was guarded in discussing the BioWatch false positive that occurred on his watch. Wada confirmed that the detection was made, in February 2007, but would not say where in the 23-square-mile city.

Despite its failures and increasing news of such, no one can halt the BioWatch program. Put together by the federal government and under the control of the Department of Homeland Security, BioWatch is also run by private sector national security contractors.

One such contractor is a business virtually no Americans have heard of called the Tauri Group.

It's website is bland, revealing little except that it's a great company to work for and that one of its specialties is combating weapons of mass destruction. A page mentioning its involvement in BioWatch is here.

In e-mail roundtable discussions between your GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow and other bioterrorism experts earlier this year concerning the profits earned and money spent battling the threat (not counting the recent goofball ricin mailers, there have been no deadly bioterror attacks since Bruce Ivins) an insider with knowledge of the BioWatch program had this to say: "Some of the Tauri Group contractors running BioWatch were making $350K on top of their military pensions."

Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. The phenomenon, also called double-dipping, occurs throughout the country, from the private sector, to the federal government, and down to the state and local level.

BioWatch has cost one billion dollars to date and the sum indicates why there is intense effort to sustain it.

But it is also plain to see that outsourcing, from the super-duper NBACC and trivial ricin mail cases, to BioWatch, does not necessarily save taxpayer dollars.

Los Angeles Times reporting on BioWatch.

A Tauri Group profile and partial employee roster can be visualized at LinkedIn.

Originally published at Dick Destiny blog. About the author, who has written on national security and cybersecurity issues for a quarter of a century and consulted in famous ricin cases.

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