The General Accounting Office (GAO), the auditing and investigative agency for Congress, disclosed in a congressional hearing Oct. 7 that it was able to purchase surplus laboratory and safety gear from the Defense Department that could be used in weaponizing biological agents. The discovery raised serious concerns about the widespread availability and resale of the equipment and follows reports by GAO and other federal agencies that poor oversight and lax controls at U.S. laboratories increased the odds that biological agents may have been stolen or improperly transferred.
According to the testimony, the agency established a fictitious company for the purposes of its study and purchased $46,960 worth of Defense Department biological laboratory equipment and safety gear over the Internet for $4,100. GAO investigators procured a bacteriological incubator, centrifuge, laboratory evaporator, and protective clothing from govliquidation.com, a surplus equipment reseller for the Defense Department.
The study also found that some equipment supplied by the Defense Department to other purchasers had been resold to buyers in countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Egypt, and United Arab Emirates, which have been known to retransfer defense-related items to countries alleged to be state sponsors of terrorism and prohibited from acquiring certain U.S. technologies. However, current federal regulations and Defense Department policies “do not generally restrict [the Defense Department] from selling our case study biological equipment to the public,” GAO reported, which allows for resale beyond U.S. end-use controls.
A full GAO report with recommendations on improving controls over sensitive equipment is forthcoming.