Many Senate Staff Left in the Dark Monday

Posted February 4, 2004 at 6:41pm

Hours after a powdery substance later confirmed to be ricin was found in a Dirksen Building mailroom, most Senate staffers — even those who were in the building at the time — didn’t yet know of the incident, and many in adjacent offices were allowed to go home only to hear of the deadly poison’s release on the news.

Although a few Senate aides were quick to point out that communications were dramatically better than after anthrax spores contaminated the Hart Senate Office Building in 2001, many still issued a broad indictment of how little they were told.

Senate aides were especially indignant when they learned that their counterparts across the Capitol began receiving mass e-mails — many on their BlackBerries — from the House Emergency Communications Center hours before they heard any official word. The mass House e-mails continued through the wee hours Tuesday and into Wednesday.

“Nothing like that happened in the Senate,” Eric Smulson, communications director for Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), said of the House messaging. “Our office manager forwarded a couple of e-mails [Tuesday] afternoon,” he said, but he heard “nothing officially from anyone in the Senate” before then.

Jeffords’ office is on the fourth floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, near Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) personal office, where the ricin was released. Smulson was one of 16 staffers who was quarantined from mid-afternoon Monday until they were decontaminated late that night.

Two Democratic Senate aides said they knew of staffers in the same corridor as Frist’s office who went home before the Capitol Police informed everyone in those offices they had to immediately go to the Appropriations Committee hearing room on the first floor.

“We definitely had several people go home. They were on that floor,” said one of those aides, an office manager.

He also said he didn’t get the first e-mail on his BlackBerry from the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms office until 7:45 p.m., long after most staffers had gone home and more than four hours after the powdery substance was found.

“There are a couple of different ways for us to be notified. Those didn’t go off at all,” the office manager said. “There is a legislative alert from the Sergeant-at-Arms that apparently did go off. There is a system for office managers, chiefs of staff and others that we’re supposed to be getting automated cellphone messages — that didn’t happen.

“I saw what exactly happened on the news that evening,” he said, adding that the situation Monday night still beat communications surrounding the anthrax scare because “we’re not hearing 90 percent of the stuff like we were on CNN.”

A spokeswoman for Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle, who chairs the Capitol Police Board, acknowledged that some staffers weren’t happy with the timeliness of the information, but added that certain protocols have to be followed before communications can go out.

Those quarantined on the first floor began making makeshift communications of their own, calling and e-mailing colleagues who had already gone home and passing on the police’s recommendations to remove their clothing and immediately take a shower.

The other Democratic aide said he received no mass e-mail on his BlackBerry. “I left the building at 8 o’clock, and only then as I was driving past all these emergency vehicles did I start making phone calls,” he said.

“Furthermore, I was amazed to watch the 10 o’clock news to find out they had known about this since 3:30.”

A few staffers reported hearing about an automated alert sent via telephone around 7 p.m., but for most it was too late to do anything about it.

In addition to the telephone and e-mail alerts, the Capitol Police also have a make-shift intercom, called the annunciator, that has the capability to target specific portions of the office buildings with different instructions during emergencies. That system wasn’t deployed.

“There were a whole bunch of things that were supposed to happen that didn’t happen,” the office manager said.

“They’ve been testing these systems for weeks,” the office manager said. “It seems like there’s a pattern forming here.”

Further distressing many Senate staffers, he said, was the fact that the Senate’s main Web site didn’t list Tuesday’s building closures.

“The only place that had accurate information was Senator Frist’s Web site,” he said, adding, however, that the site isn’t an intuitive place for staffers to go for such information.