A controversial proposal to retool the Senate’s mail processing system to better screen for lethal toxins is being met with some skepticism by top lawmakers concerned about their constituents’ privacy.
Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle presented Senators with a tentative plan this week that would require all mail addressed to the Senate to be completely opened and examined for the kind of chemical and biological agents responsible for bringing work on Capitol Hill to a virtual halt twice in the past three years.
“We have been briefed about this idea of consolidating it in one place and having federal employees open the mail and send it to us,” Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said in an interview Wednesday.
The Mississippi Republican also noted officials are weighing the advantages of digitally scanning in all of the mail at a central facility and transmitting the information to each individual Senators’ office. The House is currently in the second stage of its own digital mail pilot program.
Lott acknowledged both proposals raise “privacy” questions, a concern seconded by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the ranking member on the Rules panel.
“I don’t mind doing some temporary thing while we are sorting this out, but I am not comfortable that this is a final solution of how we deal with the mail,” Dodd said. “This needs more work.”
The discovery of the deadly poison ricin on Feb. 2 in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) personal office brought new fears about terrorism to Capitol Hill, forcing officials to shut down the Dirksen, Hart and Russell Senate office buildings last week for testing and decontamination. Two anthrax-laden letters sent to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and then-Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) caused panic on the Hill in October 2001. While no Congressional workers died, the letters were responsible for several other deaths on the Eastern seaboard.
The detection of ricin last week has prompted some Senators to review their own office’s mail-handling procedures, including the practice of having district aides send overnight letters and packages directly to the homes of Washington, D.C.-based staffers to expedite delivery.
Bob Stevenson, Frist’s communications director, acknowledged the Tennessee Republican’s office engages in this practice, but emphasized that any correspondence forwarded to Washington, D.C., has already been opened in the district office.
“It is priority mail that needs to be acted upon quickly,” Stevenson said.
So far, investigators have been unable to determine the origin of the ricin, which was found in Frist’s mailroom located in the Dirksen Building.
Mike Mason, assistant director of the FBI’s Washington field office, said last week the investigation has included interviewing staff who work in Frist’s Tennessee offices. Debra Weierman, a FBI spokeswoman, declined to comment Wednesday on whether Frist’s staffers were asked about their office’s mail policy. But Weierman did confirm that the FBI collected mail from Frist’s district offices in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, Kingsport, Chattanooga and Jackson.
“Out of an abundance of caution the offices of Senator Frist and [his] residence, which is located in Tennessee, were sampled,” said George Bolds, spokesman for the FBI’s Memphis office. “For instance here in Memphis, hazmat-trained people with the fire department went in and took some samples from the offices, the idea being sort of as a precaution to check and see if there was any evidence of ricin in the office or in the residence here in Tennessee.”
Bolds said those tests proved negative. Another letter containing ricin, bearing a Chattanooga postmark, was intercepted by White House mail personnel in early November. A similar letter was discovered at a Greenville, S.C., post office in October with demands related to the federal laws that govern trucking regulations.
Capitol Police and FBI officials have repeatedly stated there is no indication the incident in Frist’s office is related to these letters, and Stevenson said the last time a district office sent a letter to a Washington staffer was more than a week before ricin was found in the Dirksen office.
Still, a Democratic Senator criticized Frist and others for allowing staff to circumvent the current mail process, saying such practices put the Capitol Hill community at risk.
“It is not wise to do and if the anthrax letters taught us anything, it shows how unwise it is,” said the Senator, who asked not to be named.
But Stevenson defended the practice, saying that mail sent to district offices has already been screened.
“It is not a practice that is circumventing the mail practice because the mail has already been opened,” he said.
Frist is not the only Member to bypass the D.C. screening system, which redirects all mail addressed to Congress to a facility where it is opened and irradiated before it is delivered to Members’ offices. Several Democrats and Republicans admitted they, too, employ the same practice.
“We have mail sent to staff houses from people we have relationships with and trust,” said a senior aide to a Democratic Senator, who requested anonymity.
While Lott said he would discourage Senators from circumventing the mail process, the Rules chairman noted there is not much he can do to stop it.
“I don’t think we can tell them what they can’t do if they are willing to take the responsibility of risking that arrangement, risking themselves or the staff,” he said.
A Capitol Police spokeswoman stated the department’s policy would prohibit anyone from bringing a sealed envelope or package into the Capitol or its office buildings. She noted, however, that open items would not be subject to the ban.
House Members informed of the Senate proposals for opening mail offsite generally supported the idea.
“We would be interested in that, but I hope it would be temporary,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch. The Georgia lawmaker suggested a technologically sophisticated program, like the House’s digital mail pilot, would be more appropriate in the longterm.
The House program, which began testing in 2002, is used by 10 offices. House Administration Committee officials expect an additional 15 offices will be added by March.
Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), ranking member of the House Administration Committee, said the program generated interest among Members, although it also raised concerns over “the sanctity of privacy.”
“It’s a process that’s worth exploring, but not without a certain caution,” Larson said.
In an interview last week, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) said his office had contacted Lott’s staff to offer to demonstrate the digital mail program.