Ricin Scare Rattles Washington
(CNN) — “To see a wrong and not expose it, is to become a silent partner to its continuance.”
So read the letters that touched off a poison scare across Washington after the contents of the envelopes discovered at off-site White House and Senate mail rooms showed preliminary positive results for ricin, a law enforcement source said Wednesday. The letters were signed “I am KC and I approve this message,” the source said.
Discovered Tuesday, the letters were addressed to President Barack Obama and to Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi. Because initial tests can be “inconsistent,” the envelopes have been sent off for additional tests, an FBI statement said. The FBI does not expect to receive results from the tests until Thursday, federal law enforcement sources told CNN.
Preliminary tests on filters at a government mail-screening facility also indicated the presence of ricin Wednesday morning, and mail from that site also was being tested, the FBI said.
Reports of suspicious packages and envelopes also came into two Senate office buildings late Wednesday morning. Capitol Police evacuated the first floor of the Hart Senate Office Building for more than an hour and questioned a man in the area who had a backpack containing sealed envelopes, but the man was not taken into custody.
“It just reminds you that with public service comes the real possibility that you could be a target,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas. “But on the other side of it, we have an excellent police force, and I think they’ll get to the bottom of it.”
Beyond Washington, suspicious letters spotted
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, said after a briefing for lawmakers Tuesday night that a suspect has been identified in the mailing of the Wicker letter. But a knowledgeable source said no one was in custody.
Investigators are trying to determine whether suspicious letters found at Senate offices elsewhere in the country were sent by the same person, federal law enforcement sources said.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, says one of his home-state offices received a “suspicious-looking” letter and alerted authorities. “We do not know yet if the mail presented a threat,” said Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A staffer for Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake flagged “suspicious letters” at the freshman Republican’s Phoenix office, Flake spokeswoman Genevieve Rozansky said in a statement, but “no dangerous material was detected in the letters.”
Phoenix Fire Department spokesman Jonathan Jacobs said the envelope contained some type of powder. The person who initially found the envelope is being treated at a Phoenix-area hospital for a pre-existing condition and stress from the event, and others in the immediate vicinity were examined as well.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the FBI said it has no indication of a connection between the tainted letters and Monday’s bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. But the discoveries further heightened security concerns at a time when Congress is considering politically volatile legislation to toughen gun laws and reform the immigration system.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president had been briefed on the letters.
“Obviously, he understands and we all understand that there are procedures in place, as the FBI has said. There are — there is is a process in place that ensures that materials that are suspicious or substances that are found to be suspicious at remote locations are then sent for secondary and more intense testing, and that process is under way now,” Carney said.
A Texas chiropractor’s words in the spotlight
While authorities in Washington investigated the letters, the wife of a Texas chiropractor said the wording in them caught her by surprise.
The phrase is something chiropractor John Raymond Baker once said and has been widely quoted online, his wife, Tammy Bennett Baker, told CNN.
On Wednesday, she sounded surprised when told by CNN that the phrase was used in the letters under scrutiny in Washington. She said she was not aware of the letters and that the phrase refers to her husband’s general philosophy of care. She said their office phone started ringing frequently Wednesday afternoon, and it was “kind of freaking out our other employee.”
A 2006 post on a blog for Baker’s office says the comment originally was a criticism of insurance companies. Since then, the site says, it “has been a quote that has been picked up and quoted (sometimes without attribution) around the net” and “people are using it about all kinds of injustices.”
The letter sent to Wicker had a Memphis, Tennessee, postmark and no return address, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer wrote in an e-mail to senators and aides Tuesday. Wicker has been assigned a protective detail, according to a law enforcement source.
A laboratory in Maryland confirmed the presence of ricin on the letter addressed to Wicker after initial field tests also indicated the poison was present, according to Gainer. However, the FBI said additional testing was needed because field and preliminary tests produce inconsistent results.
“Only a full analysis performed at an accredited laboratory can determine the presence of a biological agent such as ricin,” according to the bureau. “Those tests are in the process of being conducted and generally take from 24 to 48 hours.”
A law enforcement source said further tests would be conducted at the Army’s biomedical research laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
Mail for members of Congress and the White House has been handled at offsite postal facilities since the 2001 anthrax attacks, which targeted Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, and then-Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota.
Senate mail service shut down
Senators were told Tuesday that the mail facility would be temporarily shut down “to make sure they get everything squared away,” McCaskill said Tuesday afternoon.
“The bottom line is, the process we have in place worked,” she said, adding that members of Congress will be warning their home-state offices to look out for similar letters.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, also praised the postal workers and law enforcement officers for “preventing this threat before it even reached the Capitol.”
“They proved that the proactive measures we put in place do, in fact, work,” he said.
Ricin is a highly toxic substance derived from castor beans. As little as 500 micrograms — an amount the size of the head of a pin — can kill an adult. There is no specific test for exposure and no antidote once exposed.
It can be produced easily and cheaply, and authorities in several countries have investigated links between suspect extremists and ricin. But experts say it is more effective on individuals than as a weapon of mass destruction.
Ricin was used in the 1978 assassination of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov. The author, who had defected nine years earlier, was jabbed by the tip of an umbrella while waiting for a bus in London and died four days later.
A previous ricin scare hit the Capitol in 2004, when tests identified it in a letter in a Senate mail room that served then-Majority Leader Bill Frist’s office. The discovery forced 16 employees to go through decontamination procedures, but no one reported any ill effects afterward, Frist said.