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Senators Seek Audit of $18B in Biodefense Spending

By Chris Strohm, CongressDaily

WASHINGTON — In a rare sign of bipartisanship close to the midterm elections, Senate and House Democrats and Republicans asked federal auditors Monday to examine how the government has spent more than $18 billion on biodefense capabilities and technologies since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks (see GSN, Sept. 22).

The government began pouring billions of dollars into biodefense research and development after the terrorist attacks and after the deaths of five people exposed to anthrax spores mailed to two Senate offices and news organizations. The mailings remain an unsolved crime (see related GSN story, today).

“Having reached the fifth anniversary of the anthrax attacks, we believe Congress and the administration would benefit from a comprehensive assessment by the Government Accountability Office of currently deployed airborne or environmental biological threat detection technologies and those that are planned or under development,” lawmakers wrote in a letter to Comptroller General David Walker (see GSN, Nov. 2).

The letter was spearheaded by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking member Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.). It was signed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)

A congressional aide said the request was prompted by another GAO investigation that concluded the Homeland Security Department does not have a sound analytical basis for spending about $1.2 billion over five years on advanced nuclear-detection equipment at U.S. ports and border crossings (see GSN, Oct. 18). The results of that investigation were made public earlier this month.

Homeland Security stands behind its investment strategy, however, and contends that GAO misunderstood some aspects of its program. Lawmakers are trying to head off wasting billions to develop biodefense technology that does not work, the aide said.

A June report by the nonpartisan Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation found that 11 federal agencies have spent or allocated more than $36 billion to address the threat of biological weapons since the 9/11 attacks (see GSN, June 27). Of that, funding for biodefense research, development, testing and evaluation will reach more than $18 billion by the end of fiscal 2007, the report states.

The lawmakers asked GAO to examine several areas, including how the government will determine the effectiveness of biological detection technologies; the effectiveness of developing technologies with current and future threats; plans to test and evaluate new technologies; the costs of research and development; and whether the government is also tapping private sector resources to develop technologies.

“Given the complexity of the subject and the need to gather information from many sectors of the federal government, academia and the private sector, we recognize that it may be necessary and prudent for GAO to accomplish this technology assessment with a sequence of reports,” lawmakers added.