Tuesday, August 19, 2003

FBI officials say an envelope containing a suspicious white powder discovered Monday at the U.S. State Department was one of at least four that had been sent from a San Diego address by someone identifying themselves as the “French Chef.”

The letter, addressed to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, was discovered at about 9:40 a.m. in the Office of Public Communications.

The FBI quickly determined that the powder was harmless, but the investigation closed part of the second floor of the department for about two hours.

FBI officials with the Washington Field Office say they respond to at least a half-dozen such hoax letters each week, including one received yesterday at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That letter was traced quickly to a Michigan prisoner who had sent more than two dozen others.

“We get a half a dozen of these things at a minimum each week,” said Jim Rice, the supervisory special agent in charge of the National Capital Response Squad for the FBI’s D.C. Field Office.

John Perren, assistant special agent in charge for domestic terrorism at the FBI’s D.C. Field Office, said the bureau responds to every call.

“We cannot afford not to respond to every incident we get a call about,” he said. “We respond to these presuming it’s an act of terrorism.”

Mr. Rice said the most common contents of such envelopes are salt, sugar, yeast and talcum powder.

“Even if it’s not anthrax, even if it’s just talcum powder, it’s still a crime,” he said, adding that the suspicious contents of one envelope turned out to be a dietary fiber supplement. “That was my favorite.”

Mr. Rice said agents responding to such calls determine whether the threat is critical, if any other suspicious items had been sent to the recipient, and what action to take.

“Our job is to investigate, to go to the scene and process the evidence,” Mr. Perren said.

Officials say the proper response to receiving an envelope with suspicious contents is to call 911. The FBI field office works closely with the Metropolitan Police Department and the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services, whose hazardous materials team handles decontamination operations.

Mr. Rice said the fire department was not called about the incident Monday because the envelope was intercepted by the State Department’s internal hazardous materials team and FBI agents were able to determine that the letter was not a threat.

“We knew from intelligence that we were going in to pick up something we had seen at least four times,” Mr. Rice said.

He said the fire department’s special-operations unit is briefed weekly on threatening situations and frequently participates in tabletop exercises and live drills.

“We never want to meet our partners for the first time in a crisis,” Mr. Rice said, adding that federal and local coordination of response capabilities in the D.C. area is five to 10 years ahead of other jurisdictions.

The level of reports about suspicious mail is nowhere near that of a three-day period in 2001 when agents responded to 1,435 calls.

In October that year, several letters containing anthrax spores were mailed through a New Jersey postal center to news outlets and political offices in New York, Florida and the District. Anthrax-laced letters also were sent to the offices of Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, both Democrats.

The attacks killed five persons, including two workers at the Brentwood mail facility in Northeast that handled the letters. Anthrax infections sickened 23 others.

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