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Postal Security Is Hardly First Class

The U.S. Postal Service can't guarantee complete safety but can do plenty to improve it. The stakes are too high to do otherwise

By Sam Jaffe

When the Federal Aviation Administration announced in the wake of the September 11 attacks that it was going to require all letters and packages carried on passenger airplanes to be scanned for explosives by x-ray, the U.S. Postal Service protested. Its complaint: Such a move would be too slow and costly, and would cause packages to be delivered too late. As a result of the new regulation, the USPS must now deliver most overnight packages by truck or rail, which has slowed them down considerably.

That's too bad, but it sure beats having another passenger-plane disaster. And now that Americans have anthrax to worry about, it's time to take an even closer look at the USPS's security measures. Unfortunately, the results aren't too comforting. While terrorists have often used the post office to deliver their evil, the sad truth is that the folks in grey don't have much in the way of a plan to stymie them. "None of us could have anticipated the events of last week -- and how someone or some group would target the mail for such purposes," Postmaster General Jack Potter told attendees of a postal convention in Denver on Monday, Oct. 15.

Ever hear of the Unabomber, Jack? And did you fail to notice all the dire warnings from bioterror experts that it's so easy to manufacture deadly microbes that the U.S. could hardly avoid an attack? And who could ask for a better system to target personalities like newsman Tom Brokaw or Senator Tom Daschle anonymously and effectively -- and for only 34 cents?

"CATASTROPHIC."

  Of course, the post office can't really do anything that would completely prevent the anthrax letters. But the USPS is going to have to change some of the ways it does business, or else this country is going to grind to a halt. "It would be absolutely catastrophic if people stopped opening their mail," says Charles Guy, former USPS economist and adjunct fellow at the Lexington Institute who specializes in postal reform. "It would be a huge roadblock for the economy."

That's because in the midst of all that junk mail and postcards, the postal system is still the way America does business. The USPS delivered 207 billion pieces of mail in 2000, garnering more than $64 billion in revenues. As anyone with an address can attest, a huge chunk of that (50%, according to the post office) is third-class-postage junk mail from direct marketers. A mere trickle, by some estimates less than 1%, is personal mail.

However, enough business mail -- important things like bills, invoices, and contracts -- flows through the postal system to ensure that its shutdown would cause untold harm to America's economy. Guy doesn't think the current anthrax scare will cause people to become so hysterical that they stop opening all of their mail. But he does think that enough people are scared to the point that an economic ripple effect could be started. "When bills stop being paid and notices are ignored, that can lead to bigger problems down the road," he says.

SIMPLE STEPS.

  It hasn't come to that yet, and with luck it won't. To ensure that it doesn't, the USPS has to drastically overhaul its security procedures. Utimately, that will probably prove to be extremely costly and time-intensive. But it can get started with some simple steps.

The first should be to comply with the FAA's decision without whining. If that means foregoing the use of passenger flights to deliver the mail, so be it. And if that becomes too expensive, the USPS should lease its own planes and operate an airline for packages, along the lines of Federal Express. Or, to get really politically incorrect, it could subcontract some mail deliveries to homes and offices to FedEx or UPS or both. Because FedEx, for instance, requires checks or credit cards for payment and a signature for delivery, it's a much more secure method of delivering mail.

Next, the postal system should expand its registered mail service, which creates a paper trail, including a signature, and makes a poor method of sending anonymous toxin-laden packages. The USPS should spur more widespread use of registered mail by dropping rates drastically. Right now it costs $7.25 to send something by registered mail, regardless of weight or size. Along with lowering the rates, the USPS should promote the service with an advertising campaign.

WHO'S TAINTED?

  In the long run, self-service kiosks should be installed at local post offices that would allow people to send registered mail without having to stand in line. And a digital photograph of the sender could even be taken at the kiosk, making it that much less appealing to terrorists for a method of distribution.

How much cheaper should registered mail be? Considering that it costs just $4 to have a letter delivered overnight, far less labor-intensive registered mail should be less expensive than that -- especially if self-service kiosks are pressed into use.

Finally, the Postal Service should pay closer attention to taking care of its own. The people who work at the central post office in Trenton, N.J., where at least two anthrax-laced letters were postmarked, are being tested for exposure. But who knows how many mail carriers and back-office employees at the several dozen local post offices came into contact with the potentially deadly letters?

Not only is the USPS not testing everyone who could have conceivably touched these letters but it isn't communicating with employees what its plan is. Clearly, the post office didn't have any plan in place for dealing with bioterrorism through the mail. It's not exactly comforting to hear Postmaster Potter say the USPS didn't consider the possibility.

It's up to the USPS to consider every nefarious scheme and design a way of keeping it from happening. And where 100% security can't be ensured, at least have a plan for how to deal with the scenarios that can be imagined. The last thing America needs is to add mail carriers to list of public servants to fall to terrorism. The USPS can do much to keep them and all Americans safer than we are now.

Jaffe is a senior writer for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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