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Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The U.S. program responsible for detecting and responding to threats of bioterrorism lacks detection equipment in more than half the country and was unable to spot multiple biological agents known as possible threats, the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general said in a report released Thursday.

Why it matters: If the country does not improve the program, called BioWatch, the "United States’ ability to prepare, detect, and respond to a potential bioterrorism attack is impeded, which could result in significant loss of human life," the IG said.

Context: The BioWatch Program was formed under the George W. Bush administration in 2003 after numerous anthrax attacks against news media offices and members of Congress killed five people and infected several others in 2001.

  • BioWatch claims to operate a nationwide aerosol detection system, but the IG said it "does not operate a nationwide early warning system."

The big picture: The IG's audit of the program found it had equipment to detect bioterrorism agents in 22 of 50 states, leaving 56% of the U.S. without coverage.

  • The IG also said BioWatch only monitors 6 of 14 biological agents known to be threats because it has not updated its detection capabilities.
  • BioWatch left equipment exposed and unguarded at 34 of 35 detection sites across the country, meaning the tools could be disarmed in a security breach.

What they're saying: "Until [Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office] addresses these information sharing weaknesses, the Nation’s readiness to respond to a potential bioterrorism attack that may result in significant loss of life is at risk," the IG office said.

  • "BioWatch’s limited footprint puts the Nation at a disadvantage to timely identify and respond to potential biological attacks."

Go deeper

Inspector general: Ethics questions prompted criminal referral involving Elaine Chao

Photo: Melissa Lyttle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Transportation Department's deputy inspector general said a "formal investigation into potential misuses of [former Secretary Elaine Chao's] position was warranted," after finding evidence of possible ethics violations, according to a report made public on Wednesday.

Why it matters: The report reveals that the IG last December asked the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to consider a criminal investigation into Chao's actions, citing possible ethical or administrative concerns. Both declined to investigate.

Updated 30 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Trump’s friends worry legal pick for N.Y. case lacks experience

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Close associates and advisers to Donald Trump tell Axios they're concerned by his decision to use a relatively inexperienced New Jersey attorney, Alina Habba, in his high-stakes legal fight against New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Why it matters: A former president typically has access to the country's most prestigious experts, including lawyers. Trump has turned to the former general counsel for a parking garage company, who works from a small law office near his Bedminster, N.J., country club.

U.S. charges 4 Belarus officials with air piracy in journalist's arrest

A Boeing 737-8AS Ryanair passenger plane from Athens, Greece, that was diverted to Minsk, Belarus, in May. Photo: Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images

The Justice Department on Thursday charged four Belarusian government officials with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy as part of an operation to arrest a dissident Belarusian journalist.

Why it matters: Prosecutors say the officials fabricated a bomb threat aboard a Ryanair flight carrying the journalist Raman Pratasevich last May, forcing it to land in Minsk, Belarus instead.