Bean Pounding: Buquet case delayed

Posted in Bioterrorism, Ricin Kooks at 2:07 pm by George Smith

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 that does the forensic ricin determinations needed in the case, according to the judge.

But is this really true? It’s an interesting story.

From the wire:

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.

Prosecutors hoped to have most of their evidence turned over to defense lawyers within the next month, she said.

Defense attorney Matthew Campbell, of the Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington, said that his office would then have to undertake complex analysis of that evidence.

“There can be no trial in a speedy time,” Campbell said.

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, when hearing of the NBACC procedure, asked sources in the US biodefense community why this was done. 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 ten years, it 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.

Worse, BioWatch cannot be counted on to detect a real attack, according to confidential government test results and computer modeling.

The false alarms have threatened to disrupt not only the 2008 Democratic convention, but also the 2004 and 2008 Super Bowls and the 2006 National League baseball playoffs. In 2005, a false alarm in Washington prompted officials to consider closing the National Mall.

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 … It’s a stupid program,” 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.

“We’ve been told not to discuss it,” he said in an interview.

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

In e-mail discussions between your GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow earlier this year on the money spent battling the threat of bioterrorism (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.”

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

Outsourcing, from the NBACC and trivial ricin mail cases, to BioWatch, does not necessarily save taxpayer dollars.

In fact, just the opposite.

Is there an echo in here? (Just joking.)

Los Angeles Times reporting on BioWatch.

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


  1. John Robertson said,

    July 10, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    It is amazing the money that is spent ‘keeping the elephants out of Trafalgar Square’.

    I used to gloat that this was US taxpayers’ money not mine but the UK is not exempt from such waste.

  2. George Smith said,

    July 11, 2013 at 7:05 am

    Hi John, yes, nice turn of phrase. You may have seen the NY Times piece on the new snail mail scanning program, tipped by one of the unsealed bits from one of the recent ricin arrests. I didn’t have much to say because it immediately occurred to me that such a program wasn’t needed in at least two of the cases. Dutschke wanted the FBI in Tupelo and Shannon Ricin Mom actually called the FBI. Plus, the couple who saw the news and got in touch with the prosecutor to tell them they’d sold castor beans to a man in Tupelo. It was put in place again after anthrax but it would have helped catch someone like Bruce Ivins because he traveled out of state, from Maryland to Princeton, New Jersey, to drop his powder mail. The super-duper NBACC, of course, is because of him. I joked to a friend that it had a new endowed research chair created with his name and he had to ask if I was joking.

  3. Chuck said,

    July 11, 2013 at 11:52 am

    Oh, c’mon George. Any of this stuff is about building mini-empires, not competent ones, nor even accomplishing an objective. Get approval for funding a new project and it’s an automatic kick up the civil service ladder–with the option of being hired as a consultant after retirement–or retiring and starting a business whose sole customer is the project you spawned.

    Good times.

  4. George Smith said,

    July 11, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    Succinctly put, Chuck!