- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2001

Message to Tom Ridge on safer mail delivery

Dear Gov. Ridge: I was thrilled by your appointment as director of homeland security, anxious to have a man of action,

a hard-nosed former Marine, take over the reins of domestic security.

You were quiet the first few days, then held a press conference last week to discuss the anthrax bio-terrorism crisis that has hit America in the national solar plexus. More than 2,000 postal workers have been put on antibiotics and four postal workers who handled the anthrax dosed letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle letter have come down with inhalation anthrax, two of whom have died.

This may be only the beginning. Not only anthrax, but even more fatal pathogens can infect unsuspecting Americans in the future all through the simple expedient of a 34 cent stamp.

What did we hear at your press conference?

Your colleague from the postal service looked squarely at millions of Americans and without missing a beat, told us, "The mail is safe."

In my decades of covering Washington, I have heard many ludicrous statements from politicians, but none so outrageous as this.

The mail is safe?

For the first time since the war of 1812, the House closed down prematurely because of danger. When the letter to Mr. Daschle was opened, out came a powdery plume which immediately exposed 28 of his employees to the disease bacteria. There was danger that the ventilation system that handled the offices of 12 senators could spread the disease wholesale.

The mail is safe for whom? For terrorists, of course.

What is the government particularly the Office of Homeland Security doing about it?

The postal service is sending out postcards to tell us how to handle "suspicious" letters. That is not the answer. Several postal workers and others have contracted cutaneous anthrax just by touching contaminated unopened envelopes. (Disposable rubber gloves are more helpful than the postcard.)

The FBI is searching for the culprits, but that is not enough. Even if they are caught, other terrorists can initiate new bioterrorism attacks through the mail.

The trouble is that we are fighting a high-tech war in Afghanistan but a low-tech war at home. Almost since the first anthrax attack, we have known there is a high-tech method of "zapping" the mail and killing all bacteria.

The technique has been developed by SureBeam, a subsidiary of the Titan Co. run by a Ph.D. in physics. (I don't own any stock in the company.) They are in the business of killing bacteria on a mass basis in both ground beef and on medical supplies before they reach doctors and hospitals.

I interviewed the CEO, who says he could start sanitizing the mails "tomorrow" in two of his five establishments. The technique is not radioactive, but runs on harmless electricity. A linear accelerator speeds up the emission of electrons into a beam that zaps the bacteria on a moving conveyor belt without harming the mail. The company has tested the anthrax-killing system for the Defense Department and has proved that it works and is totally safe. (The workers would wear special clothing to protect them from anthrax in the mail and would receive combat pay.).

"We could handle the mail in 9-inch high stacks and move it about 2 feet in a minute," he explained.

The cost? He estimates that it would add only a penny or two to the price of a stamp.

Immediately, we should start to ship our Washington, then our New York, mail to the electron beam centers before it is delivered to our post offices. Meanwhile, we should start building linear accelerator units on a regional basis all over the country to handle all the mail making it truly "safe."

I know this is a radical solution requiring a total change in our mail delivery system. but these ar days of radical, unanticipated challenges. Besides, it is the only feasible long-range solution.

What is he negative aspect of this plan? Merely that you'll get your bills a day or two later.

I know you haven't been given the authority to properly do your job as director of homeland security. But I do know a frightened bureaucracy can start to move if someone really kicks butt.

If this were World War II, the system would be started in days. But today, in a world of slothful bureaucracies, you will have your hands full trying to get domestic security moving. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, for example, the visa program of the State Department and especially the Federal Aviation Administration are almost dysfunctional when it comes to homeland security.

They are tough nuts to crack, but in this bio-terrorism-by-mail crisis, you have a clear shot at forcing the Postal Service to use modern science to make the mail truly safe.

Please don't let me, and the American people, down.

Martin Gross is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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