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Suspicious Mail Puts Hill on High Alert

State offices, off-site mail sorting facilities received suspicious letters, putting Hill on guard

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
Capitol Police officers cleared the public spaces of the Hart Senate Office Building on Wednesday after a report of a suspicious package. The “all clear” came a few hours later, but after Monday’s bombing in Boston and Tuesday’s ricin scare, the Hill community was shaken.

A series of suspicious packages on the Senate side of the Capitol put staffers, police and lawmakers further on edge and on alert about security concerns at the complex.

The combination of this week’s bombing in Boston followed by intercepted letters that tested positive for ricin poison addressed to Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and the White House gave way to chaos Wednesday, when suspicious packages were found in the Hart and Russell Senate Office buildings.

Capitol Police officers evacuated the premises, closed the entrances and put the whole area on lockdown. A few hours later the Capitol Police gave the “all clear,” but the Capitol campus remained on high alert and anxiety crescendoed to a general sense of panic.

Hours later, when Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., confirmed to a group of reporters that his office had been the recipient of one of the suspicious letters and that initial testing had shown it to be “benign,” he encapsulated the theme of the day in just six words.

“In today’s world, you never know,” he said.

This week, security screening for non- credentialed visitors took longer. Outdoor garbage cans were turned on their sides and emptied, lest they be used as vessels for pipe bombs or other explosives.

It’s been nearly a decade since the last time Capitol Hill felt the heart palpitations of a terror scare. In the intervening years — several times a week, in fact — Capitol Police officers have been asked to respond to strange-looking parcels, unattended items and suspicious characters on the grounds. Sometimes areas are cordoned off or evacuated while checks are made.

Newer staffers and even members of the press who seized on Wednesday’s chaos in the Hart and Russell buildings wouldn’t know just how routine these incidents are because they often result in nothing. An overwhelming majority of the time, a suspicious package is simply a backpack a tourist accidentally left behind. Last week, officers investigated reports of a man with a gun outside the House side of the Capitol; it turned out to be an umbrella sticking out of a bag.

But after the attacks in Boston and the possibility that ricin-laced letters were sent to Wicker and Obama, lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill have felt the renewed anxiety of living in a world left vulnerable ever since the events of 9/11.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said Senate mail would not be delivered for the rest of the week, and he told staffers not to accept any hand-delivered mail unless it was from a uniformed, credentialed official.

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