The Department of Homeland Security secret Super Bowl documents critiquing the response to a simulated anthrax attack were discovered in the seat-back pocket of a commercial airplane, CNN reported.
The secret Super Bowl reports were based on exercises designed to evaluate the ability of public health, law enforcement and emergency management officials to engage in a coordinated response to a hypothetical biological attack carried out in Minneapolis on Super Bowl Sunday.
The documents were marked “For Official Use Only” and “important for national security,” CNN reported, and recipients of the draft “after-action” reports were allegedly told to keep them locked up after business hours and to make sure they were shredded before they discarding them. The recipients of the secret Super Bowl documents were also admonished not to share their contents with anyone who lacked “an operational need-to-know.”
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The documents, which date back to December 2017 according to the CNN report, were discovered, along with other sensitive material coming from the Department of Homeland Security, in the pocket of an airplane seat. CNN was unable to verify who left the secret Super Bowl documents on the place, but the travel itinerary and the boarding pass that were found along the documents were in the name of a Michael V. Walter.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Walter is a microbiologist who has been the program manager of BioWatch since 2009. “I am responsible for developing and operating a budget that has ranged up to 90 million dollars and directed a staff or more than 50 members,” his profile says. With 20 years of experience with biological warfare research, Walter’s profile also says he held previous posts with the Central Intelligence Agency and Naval Surface Warfare Center.
What is BioWatch?
BioWatch is a United States federal government program that conducted the anthrax drills in preparation for Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. Created in 2001in response to the increased threat of bioterrorism, the program operates via a system of filters located within existing Environmental Protection Agency air filters that monitor air quality.
Since it was first announced in President George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address of 2003, the program has faced a steady stream of criticism. Multiple government reports, some issued more than a decade ago, have raised questions about the cost and effectiveness of the BioWatch program.
“Since 2003, approximately $1 billion has been spent on this program,” a 2013 memo by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s oversight subcommittee said, according to CNN. “After more than a decade of operation, DHS still lacks crucial data demonstrating the effectiveness of the current technology.”
The report also stated that there were significant differences of opinion within the United States government about BioWatch.
“Several statements by DHS about the performance of the BioWatch program are disputed by other government scientists or contradicted by information obtained in this investigation,” the document said.
According to CNN, a 2015 report from the Government Accountability Office said that “considerable uncertainty” exists about the types and sizes of biological attacks the system responsible for the secret Super Bowl documents could detect. The report also states that the Department of Homeland Security failed to develop “performance requirements” for the program.
What makes the secret Super Bowl documents so secret?
The secret Super Bowl documents discovered by a CNN employee earlier this week contained information on how to improve the exercises designed to test the response of law enforcement and emergency management officials to a bioterrorism attack.
CNN reported that some of the several areas for improvement identified in the exercises included the problem that “some local law enforcement and emergency management agencies possess only a cursory knowledge of the BioWatch program and its mission.”
After multiple government officials voiced concerns over the impact publishing the secret Super Bowl documents would have on the security of the event, CNN decided to withhold publication of its article until after the Super Bowl. An official with the Department of Homeland Security told CNN that all of the areas for improvement identified in the draft reports had been addressed prior to Sunday’s game and that the agency had “great confidence” in its preparedness.
“This exercise was a resounding success and was not conducted in response to any specific, credible threat of a bioterrorism attack,” said Tyler Q. Houlton, an agency spokesman.
Juliette Kayyem, a former DHS official who now currently serves as a CNN contributor, said that the fact that the secret Super Bowl documents highlighted deficiencies in the program was not surprising. Kayyem told CNN that such exercises are designed to expose gaps in planning and preparedness so that the authorities can be better equipped “if something bad were to happen.” Nonetheless, she said, the displacement of the documents was “a really stupid thing.”
“The biggest consequence of this mistake,” Kayyem said, “may have less to do with terrorists knowing our vulnerabilities and more to do with confidence in the Department of Homeland Security. In the end, confidence in the federal government at a time of crisis is what the American public deserves.”
The secret Super Bowl documents obtained by CNN are based on a pair of exercises conducted in July and November 2017, built around the response to an intentional anthrax release that coincides with the Super Bowl. Among some of the findings listed in the documents were “differences of opinion” over how many people had been exposed. The difficulties in drawing a clear conclusion on the number of people that would have been affected led to “differences of opinion on courses of action,” the report in secret Super Bowl documents said.
The reports also noted persisting confusion among local health agencies about the meaning of alerts issued during the exercise, as well as the lack of knowledge with whom information could safely be shared during an emergency, CNN reported.
The secret Super Bowl documents revealed that this “made it difficult for them to assess whether their city was at risk,” and that it created a situation “where local officials are deciding on courses of action from limited points of view.”