All Congressional Mail to Be Opened Off-site

Posted February 18, 2004 at 1:03pm

With concerns for safety appearing to trump questions of privacy, both the House and Senate announced plans to implement extensive new mail-screening procedures intended to fend off the chemical and biological attacks that have brought much of Capitol Hill to near-standstills twice in the past three years.

“As a practical matter, it is not acceptable to put Members and their staff at risk from such threats. It is equally unacceptable for the work of Congress to be interrupted by such events,” states a Feb. 13 letter issued by House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood and Chief Administrative Officer Jay Eagen.

While the two chambers are implementing separate programs, they do share a significant step: All mail will be opened off-site.

Under the new House procedures detailed by Livingood and Eagen, the contents of letters, packages and other mail will be tested for hazardous materials at an off-site facility before being repackaged and delivered to the Capitol or House office buildings.

Currently, all Congressional mail is irradiated by the U.S. Postal Service and then tested for a variety of substances, such as anthrax. In that process, only a corner of each envelope is cut, and contents are not removed.

“[W]hile this process is effective, enhanced protection can be achieved through an open, remove and test procedure. Once removed, the mail will be re-inserted into the envelope and re-sealed for delivery after test results have verified the item is safe,” the letter states. The irradiation process will continue under the new program.

An associated fact sheet directs staffers to contact the Pitney Bowes Call Center with questions regarding mail, but a spokesman for the company declined to confirm if it has been contracted to test House mail. The Connecticut-based company currently screens packages delivered to Congressional offices by private companies including FedEx and UPS.

Across the Capitol, the Senate will maintain its own off-site facility to open and test mail, according to the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms’ office.

“The new procedures improve safety and accountability by limiting the number of people involved in opening and processing mail to trained, experienced Senate Post Office employees working in a controlled environment,” an announcement on Webster, the internal Senate Web site, stated Wednesday. “Additionally, opening and testing the mail offsite minimizes the likelihood of contaminating a Senate office or building.”

The new screening procedures were developed after the discovery of the toxin ricin in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) personal office on Feb. 2. That incident, which is still under investigation by the Capitol Police and the FBI, prompted the temporary closure of the Senate’s three office buildings and brought mail delivery on Capitol Hill to a standstill.

Several Senators voiced concern last week about constituents’ privacy following a briefing by Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle on tentative plans for the new screening procedures.

Similarly, in a Feb. 17 letter addressed to Eagen and Livingood, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) requested the new mail procedures be suspended until privacy-related issues are reviewed.

“I believe these new procedures fundamentally damage the integrity of the chain of communication between constituents and Members of Congress,” Kucinich wrote. “When a letter is mailed by a constituent to his or her Representative, there is a reasonable and justified expectation that the letter itself will not be taken from the envelope and potentially viewed and read — intentionally or not — by anonymous parties other than the Member or the Member’s paid personal staff.”

In announcements describing the new programs, both House and Senate officials stated safeguards will be used to monitor employees opening the mail and to ensure confidentiality of documents.

“All letters and flats will be opened and tested by trained, experienced Senate Post Office employees who have undergone required security background checks,” according to the Senate Web site. “Video cameras and Senate Post Office supervisors will monitor their work. Additional security measures have been imbedded to ensure the integrity of the process.”

The House letter notes: “This new process will focus on examining items for potential threats, not on reviewing the content of any correspondence.”

Mail delivery in the Senate is scheduled to resume Thursday, although Sergeant-at-Arms officials have said it may take four to six weeks to achieve normal delivery rates. Similarly, while first class mail should begin arriving at House offices next week, there are nearly 600,000 pieces of backlogged mail to be screened.

“Every effort will be made to process this mail expeditiously, however, mail delays will continue over the next several months while the new systems are implemented,” Eagen and Livingood wrote.

Mail to House offices will likely face weeklong delays for several months, according to the fact sheet on the program.

Senate officials expect an additional 24-hour delay in mail delivery under the new system, the Senate Web site states.