On July 31 of this year, President Barack Obama signed a cover letter attached to the White House release of the National Strategy for Biosurveillance (pdf). The misguided premise on which this strategy (and the underlying boondoggle of the program known as BioWatch) rests stands out clearly in the President’s opening sentence:
There is no higher priority than the security and safety of the American people.
The mass delusion that total safety is both achievable and worth the tremendous sacrifices of resources and liberties that would be needed to even get close to such a state got a huge boost in President Ronald Reagan’s watershed “Star Wars” speech of March 23, 1983, giving birth to the Strategic Defense Initiative. It was clear from the start that this program had no chance of working as Reagan dreamed it, but massive amounts of money went into the program anyway, as William Broad described last month (emphasis added):
Since the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan began the modern hunt for defenses against long-range missiles, Washington has spent more than $200 billion devising ways to hit incoming enemy warheads that move at speeds in excess of four miles per second. Critics have long faulted the goal as delusional, saying that any country smart enough to make intercontinental ballistic missiles could also make simple countermeasures sure to foil any defense.
President George W. Bush announced the program that would become BioWatch as a part of his larger Project Bioshield in his 2003 State of the Union address (again, emphasis added):
We’ve intensified security at the borders and ports of entry, posted more than 50,000 newly trained federal screeners in airports, begun inoculating troops and first responders against smallpox, and are deploying the nation’s first early warning network of sensors to detect biological attack.
I thank the Congress for supporting these measures. I ask you tonight to add to our future security with a major research and production effort to guard our people against bio-terrorism, called Project Bioshield.
The budget I send you will propose almost $6 billion to quickly make available effective vaccines and treatments against agents like anthrax, botulinum toxin, ebola and plague. We must assume that our enemies would use these diseases as weapons, and we must act before the dangers are upon us.
The monitoring system that is now BioWatch is rife with problems. David Willman of the Los Angeles Times has continuously documented the many problems with and failings of BioWatch. He has informed us of the extremely high false positive rate from the currently deployed version of the system and has followed in real time the failures as DHS has forged ahead in purchasing the next generation of the technology before it is ready.