Wednesday, 17 April 2013
Suspicious highly toxic substance found on letter sent to President Obama
By Mike Brooks and Dana Bash, WASHINGTON (CNN) — A letter addressed to President Barack Obama that contained a “suspicious substance” has been intercepted at the White House’s off-site mail facility, a Secret Service spokesman said Wednesday.
The letter arrived Tuesday, the same day as an envelope addressed to a U.S. senator that initially tested positive for the deadly poison ricin.
Further testing took place Wednesday on an envelope addressed to a U.S. senator’s office that initially tested positive for the deadly poison ricin, the FBI said.
The envelope was intercepted Tuesday at the U.S. Capitol’s off-site mail facility in Washington, congressional and law enforcement sources tell CNN.
Coming on the day after the Boston Marathon bombings, the envelope further heightened security concerns at a time when Congress is considering politically volatile legislation to tough gun laws and reform the immigration system.
“Monday’s attack in Boston reminded us that terrorism can still strike anywhere at any time,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday. “And as yesterday’s news of an attempt to send ricin to the Capitol reminds us, it is as important as ever to take the steps necessary to protect Americans from those who would do us harm.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was told the envelope was addressed to the office of Sen. Roger Wicker, a conservative Republican from Mississippi.
A laboratory in Maryland confirmed the presence of ricin after initial field tests also indicated the poison was present, according to Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance 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.”
In a statement late Tuesday, the U.S. Capitol Police said further tests would be conducted at the Army’s biomedical research laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
The envelope had a Memphis, Tennessee, postmark and no return address, Gainer wrote in an e-mail to senators and aides.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, told reporters after a briefing for lawmakers that a suspect has already been identified in the incident, but a knowledgeable source said no one was in custody Tuesday night.
Wicker has been assigned a protective detail, according to a law enforcement source.
Postal workers started handling mail at a site off Capitol Hill after the 2001 anthrax attacks that targeted then-Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-Nebraska, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, among others.
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.
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.
A previous ricin scare hit the Capitol in 2004, when tests identified a letter in a Senate mailroom 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.
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.
CNN’s Tom Cohen, Rachel Streitfeld and Matt Smith contributed to this report.