Washington went into terrorism-alert mode as authorities reported preliminary tests showed a letter sent to President Barack Obama contained the poison ricin and suspicious packages triggered a temporary lockdown in parts of two Senate office buildings.
With the capital already on edge after the Boston Marathon bombing, alarm spread on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue as officials tried to determine the extent and nature of the threats. There is “no indication” the ricin mail is connected to the terrorist bombing in Boston, the FBI said in a statement.
The letter addressed to Obama was quarantined at an off-site mail center after an initial test indicated it contained ricin, Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said in an e-mail. The sample will require subsequent tests to confirm the preliminary results.
There was no effect on White House operations, the FBI said.
That letter was identified at a mail facility separate from the one that sorts congressional mail, where a letter suspected of being tainted with ricin and addressed to Senator Roger Wicker was discovered yesterday.
That discovery prompted Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer to send an e-mail alert today to senators’ staff members urging them to be “vigilant” and to not accept sealed envelopes that haven’t been screened. While previously screened Senate mail is being distributed today, delivery will be suspended tomorrow and Friday while the investigation is conducted and additional testing is completed, he said in the e-mail.
In addition, in at least one case today a visitor to the Senate office buildings was politely told he couldn’t bring in his groups’ letters to distribute by hand.
The suspect letter to Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, was postmarked from Memphis, Tennessee, and initially tested positive for ricin, Gainer said. The Secret Service is working with the U.S. Capitol Police and the FBI in an investigation into the contaminated mail.
Suspicious mail also was reported in the Washington offices of Senators Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, and Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. Manchin is a co-sponsor of a compromise proposal to expand background checks for gun purchasers, scheduled to receive a vote later today on the Senate floor.
Hallways outside their offices were closed off for a time while authorities arrived to investigate the packages.
“If you’re going to be scared to do the right thing, you shouldn’t be here,” Manchin said, adding that he remains hopeful that the gun bill’s supporters can win the additional votes needed.
Shennell Antrobus, the public information officer for the Capitol Police, said the force is investigating two suspicious envelopes in the Hart and Russell Senate buildings. He declined to comment further as he addressed reporters in front of the Hart building.
In addition, a hazardous-materials team was called to the Saginaw, Michigan, office of Democratic Senator Carl Levin in response to a suspicious envelope. It wasn’t opened and it hasn’t been determined whether it contained any dangerous items, according to the senator’s website.
Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican, said that letters to his office in Phoenix were examined by a hazardous-materials squad. The letters, which weren’t opened by his staff, also had Tennessee postmarks, he said.
“No dangerous or hazardous materials were detected,” he said in a statement later in the day.
Ricin is a poison made from castor beans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is harmful and potentially fatal if inhaled or ingested, and isn’t contagious, the CDC said on its website.
“You must inhale or ingest it,” said Jim Romagnoli, the vice president of emergency management at the North Shore - LIJ Health System in Great Neck, New York.
Symptoms depend on the purity, route of exposure and the dose. Initial symptoms from inhalation occur as early as four to six hours after the exposure, and symptoms include difficulty breathing and a cough, according to the CDC.
The symptoms can progress rapidly to fluid within the lungs and eventually respiratory failure. Deaths from the poison usually happen within 36 to 72 hours. While no antidote exists, doctors can counteract the effects of the poisoning by helping victims breathe or giving them fluids.
Someone sending a ricin letter to the president could face federal charges, including attempting to assassinate the president.
“Without a doubt that would be a charge any prosecutor would consider,” Roscoe Howard Jr., who was U.S. attorney in Washington when letters containing anthrax were mailed to lawmakers in 2001, said in a phone interview. “A logical standpoint is why else mail ricin to the president.”
If ricin is confirmed in testing, the person who sent it also could be charged with attempted murder, use of a weapon of mass destruction and threatening the president, said Benton Campbell, a partner at Latham & Watkins LLP in New York, who was a Justice Department prosecutor for 16 years. From 2007 to 2010, he was the interim U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
The ricin alert began yesterday. The Capitol Police were notified by a mail facility for Congress “that it received an envelope containing a white granular substance,” spokesman Antrobus 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 further tests 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 a laboratory analysis would take as long as 48 hours.
Investigators have identified a suspect in the Wicker mailing, a person who “writes to a lot of members” of Congress, Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, told reporters.
Wicker was accompanied by two plainclothes Capitol police officers as he left a luncheon meeting of the Senate Republican Steering Committee. He declined to comment on the investigation’s progress, saying authorities had urged him not to speak publicly about it.
The government constructed a new White House mail-screening facility in 2010 that isn’t on White House grounds, U.S. Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan told Congress at the time.
The suspect letter to the president, after registering positive for ricin in a field test, will go to an accredited laboratory for a “full analysis” to seek confirmation of the preliminary finding, according to an FBI statement today.
There have been previous reported incidents involving ricin, according to a 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service. In 2008, a man in Las Vegas poisoned himself manufacturing ricin in a hotel room. He survived and was subsequently convicted of possession of a biological toxin, according to CRS.
The report cites two cases directed at officials in Washington. In November 2003, the U.S. Secret Service reportedly intercepted an envelope containing ricin addressed to the White House. In February 2004, ricin was detected in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in the mailroom of then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican.