By Emma Dumain, Niels Lesniewski, Humberto Sanchez, Jennifer Scholtes and Daniel Newhauser
April 16, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Sen. Roger Wicker has been sent an envelope containing a substance that tested positive for ricin.
Several senators around 6:30 p.m. Tuesday confirmed to CQ Roll Call the existence of the contaminated letter. Shortly thereafter, several senators reported that the letter was intercepted in the screening process at the Senate Mail Handling Facility and it never made it to the Capitol itself.
After 7:30 p.m., Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance W. Gainer verified the information in an internal memo to his employees.
“The exterior markings on the envelope in this case were not outwardly suspicious, but it was postmarked from Memphis, Tennessee and had no return address,” Gainer wrote, adding that the Senate’s off-site mail processing center would be closed “for the next two to three days while testing and the law enforcement investigation continues.”
The Capitol Police, the FBI and “other agencies” are coordinating on the investigation, Gainer said.
In a separate memo, House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving alerted his chamber about the incident, while adding that the off-site House Mail Handling Facility had not as of yet received any suspicious mailings.
In an email to CQ Roll Call, Gainer emphasized that “the letter in question never entered any Senate office facility or building other than our mail processing facility.
“Our mail screening procedures worked; the letter was discovered, processed tested and never reached its intended target,” he continued.
Around 8:35 p.m., Wicker’s office sent out a statement, saying, “This matter is part of an ongoing investigation by the United States Capitol Police and FBI. I want to thank our law enforcement officials for their hard work and diligence in keeping those of us who work in the Capitol complex safe.”
Though Capitol Hill law enforcement officials did not immediately release public statements or return media inquiries, news happened to break of the ricin-contaminated envelope while senators were already in a closed briefing with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FBI Director Robert Mueller regarding the investigation of Monday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon.
Senators were then informed of the letter, although they were not told the identity of their colleague who was targeted, many said. As they exited the briefing, many lawmakers were willing to speak generally with reporters about what they had learned so far.
Though they said the news was troubling, lawmakers did not appear to be particularly worried.
“Everything that is sent to us is sliced, everything that is mailed to us is roasted, toasted, sliced and opened,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said, “so by the time it reaches us it doesn’t look like the original letter.”
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Senate received letters containing Anthrax; three years later, the chamber was targeted with letters laced with ricin. Those incidents changed mail processing protocols considerably.
Capitol Hill and the rest of the Washington region are also on high alert following the Monday attacks in Boston, with law enforcement going so far as to take Capitol complex trash cans out of commission for fear they could be used as vessels for explosives.
Durbin declined to draw conclusions about whether the incidents are related.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.