Postal workers intercepted a letter addressed to U.S. Senator Roger Wicker that preliminary tests showed contained poisonous ricin, with lawmakers learning of the incident while they were being briefed yesterday on the deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon.
Investigators have identified a suspect in the mailing, a person who “writes to a lot of members” of Congress, Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, told reporters.
Authorities hadn’t announced any arrests as of late yesterday. The letter to Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, was postmarked from Memphis, Tennessee, and initially tested positive for ricin, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said in an e-mail. Authorities have “no indication” of any other suspicious letters, he said.
Still, the timing of the letter’s discovery following the Boston bombings evoked memories in Washington of anthrax mailings that targeted lawmakers in 2001.
Shortly after that year’s Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., letters containing anthrax were sent to two senators during a series of mailings to media and government offices that claimed five lives across the country. No lawmakers were harmed.
The letter addressed to Wicker was intercepted at a Maryland postal facility that processes mail intended for lawmakers.
U.S. Capitol Police were notified by the facility yesterday “that it received an envelope containing a white granular substance,” Officer Shennell S. Antrobus, a spokesman for the force, said in a statement last night.
“The envelope was immediately quarantined” and “preliminary tests indicate the substance found was ricin,” Antrobus said.
An FBI laboratory will conduct the further tests needed to determine the exact nature of the substance, according to Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman. He said the initial field tests produced “mixed results.” The agency said laboratory analysis would take as long as 48 hours.
Field tests are conducted any time a suspicious powder is found at a mail facility, the FBI said in a statement. Only a full analysis at an accredited lab can determine the presence of a biological agent such as ricin, according to the statement.
FBI spokeswoman Kathleen Wright declined to comment today on whether a suspect has been identified.
“This matter is part of an ongoing investigation by the United States Capitol Police and FBI,” Wicker, 61, said in a statement last night. “I want to thank our law enforcement officials for their hard work and diligence in keeping those of us who work in the Capitol complex safe.”
Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said Gainer told senators about the letter during a briefing on the April 15 bombings at the Boston Marathon that killed three people, injured more than 170 and heightened concerns throughout the U.S. about terrorism.
“Everything that is mailed us is roasted, toasted, sliced and opened” at a mail-handling facility in suburban Prince George’s County, Maryland, Durbin said. “By the time it reaches us it doesn’t look like the original letter.”
The letter’s interception at the off-site mail facility “still raises the question about the mail sent to our offices back in the state,” Durbin told reporters. “We are alerting our offices to be extra careful.”
Durbin said the incident brought to mind the anthrax scare. “We were told it is not as deadly or threatening, but still being taken very seriously,” he said.
Almost twelve years ago, anthrax was mailed in letters to then-Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, both Democrats. The letter to Leahy never reached the Capitol. The letter addressed to Daschle, then majority leader, was opened on Oct. 15, 2001, in the Hart Senate Office Building’s mail room.
Two postal workers exposed to infected mail at the Capitol’s off-site post office died. Letters with anthrax had been sent to media outlets and newspapers in September of that year, starting one week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and then to the senators in October.
In February 2004, three Senate office buildings were temporarily closed after ricin was found in the mail room of then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican.
Gainer in his e-mail yesterday said that though “the exterior markings” on the letter sent to Wicker “were not outwardly suspicious,” it had no return address to go with its postmark from Memphis.
He added that “Senate employees should be vigilant in their mail handling processes for all mailings.”
Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, told reporters yesterday there was “no evidence of contamination” of postal facilities in the Capitol building. Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, said the U.S. House and Senate post offices have been closed.
U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman Patricia Licata said the agency “is working diligently with authorities to determine if there was in fact a hazardous substance inside an envelope addressed to a U.S. senator, and if so, what type of substance was present.”
Sally Davidow, a spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union, said in an interview last night that “we haven’t been notified by the Postal Service about anything.”
“We have learned about this incident entirely through the news media, and we are not amused,” she said. “If it’s been in the mail, there’s a potential it may have been handled by APWU Workers.”
Wicker is a native of Mississippi who was elected to the House in 1994 and was appointed to the Senate in December 2007 to replace Republican Trent Lott, who resigned to become a lobbyist. Wicker won a special election in 2008 to serve the remaining four years of Lott’s term and was elected last November to a full six-year stint.
As a senator, Wicker’s focus has been on lowering taxes and reducing federal spending. The National Tax-Limitation Committee gave him its “Tax Fighter Award” in September, citing his opposition to the 2010 health-care law and his votes against increasing the nation’s debt limit.
“Unless current policy is changed, our national debt will continue to impede recovery and remain an unfair burden on future generations,” Wicker said in a statement accepting the award.
Wicker opposes abortion rights, and the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund endorsed him in his 2012 re- election bid, giving him a rating of A-plus.
There was no extra security posted late yesterday outside Wicker’s office in the Dirksen Senate office building. The office was locked with no sign of activity. By the time authorities informed senators of the letter, normal office hours had ended.
Ricin is part of the waste “mash” produced when castor oil is made from castor beans, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It works, the CDC website says, “by getting inside the cells of a person’s body and preventing the cells from making the proteins they need. Without the proteins, cells die. Eventually this is harmful to the whole body, and death may occur.”
The substance “is unlikely to be absorbed through the skin,” and it takes “a deliberate act to make ricin and use it to poison people,” the CDC site says.
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