A confidential Department of Homeland Security (DHS) December 2017 anti-terrorism report on anthrax was discovered by a CNN employee after having been left in a plane’s seat pocket.
The document detailed how the DHS would respond in the case of a bioterrorism attack during the Super Bowl, CNN reported Monday. It outlined ways to improve after confusion in recent drills.
The report’s cover sheet indicated that it belonged to DHS’s “BioWatch” program, created in 2001 and operating since 2003, CNN reported. It’s the “nation’s only system for early warning of an aerosolized biological attack,” according to DHS.
“Recipients of the draft “after-action” reports were told to keep them locked up after business hours and to shred them prior to discarding,” according to CNN. The confidentiality of the contents was strict and not to be shared with anyone who didn’t have “an operational need-to-know.”
The breach in security is embarrassing but caused no real harm.
A boarding pass among other identifying information found in the BioWatch reports were under the name of Michael V. Walter, the program manager for BioWatch, CNN reported. DHS did not assign responsibility nor comment on disciplinary action for a such a security breach:
“DHS does not comment on personnel matters or potential pending personnel action,” an official said.
CNN held off on publishing the information because it was dangerous, “so as not to compromise security plans for the football game.” What if someone with ill intent had gotten their hands on it?
Over 67,000 fans attended the game in Minneapolis, reported the Washington Post. Tyler Q. Houlton, DHS spokesman, commented on the function of the reports in an email:
“Over the last two years, 27 DHS entities worked closely with our federal partners and local law enforcement in Minneapolis to prepare for the Super Bowl. It is important that operators regularly exercise their capabilities against a wide range of scenarios in order to effectively counter the changing threat environment.”
Never fear, the DHS was acting proactively and not in response to realized threat.
“This exercise was a resounding success and was not conducted in response to any specific, credible threat of a bioterrorism attack,” Houlton said.
There were a number of deficiencies in the anthrax simulation drills BioWatch conducted in 2017, CNN reported. One involved “differences of opinion” concerning exposure which resulted in split courses of action. Local health agencies were also not on the same page for the meaning of alerts issued during the exercise.
These issues “made it difficult for them to assess whether their city was at risk,” the report stated. It “creates a situation where local officials are deciding on courses of action from limited points of view.”
Jim H. Crumpacker, a program manager at DHS, wrote that “the threat to our environment is constantly evolving,” although BioWatch could be improved:
“Biological attacks can begin without overt signs; therefore early warning and detection capabilities are essential for mitigating consequences and saving lives. BioWatch is a key part of the Nation’s layered approach for protection against a catastrophic biological terror attack, and each hour gained in detection translates into lives saved.”
The sunny side to this revealed information is that a known problem can be addressed. The discovery of these reports can act as reassurance to the public that the DHS is taking important steps to protect them in the case of an attack.