published Friday, April 19th, 2013

Poison attacks via mail have Washington legislators on guard


by Chris Carroll
People visit the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
People visit the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

WASHINGTON — Most congressional lawmakers from Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama continue to accept letters in the wake of poisonous postal attacks, but all are encouraging emails, calls and faxes instead as a way to ensure safety.

"You'll never get rid of crazy, but these folks win if they cut us off from the people we're representing," said U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, a Johnson City Republican. "Unfortunately, it's a risk of the job."

Lawmakers and staffers remained on high alert in a week spoiled by terror. Forty-eight hours after Monday's Boston Marathon bombings, federal agents arrested a Mississippi man suspected of sending letters that included the poison ricin to President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

"The world's never perfectly safe," U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said. "A meteor can land on you today."

Both letters were intercepted at off-site screening facilities before reaching their intended destinations. Several lawmakers and congressional staffers said that, by and large, letters and packages addressed to home-state offices are not X-rayed or otherwise checked for harmful substances. It's different in Washington, where off-site contractors irradiate, open and inspect all postmarked letters before they're sent to congressional offices.

That change was made after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when anthrax-laced letters mailed to national news organizations and two senators killed five people and sickened many more. Sometimes the screening process takes two weeks.

"It takes a long time to get things, but you know what? They catch the bad stuff," U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., said in an interview. "The procedure's working."

But some things slip through the cracks. The scariness hit close to home Wednesday when Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., alerted Capitol Police to a suspicious package hand-delivered to a front-office staffer.

"Testing on the package for hazardous substances was negative," Shelby spokesman Jonathan Graffeo said Thursday.

Jarred by the ricin news, Southern lawmakers still showed awareness of the fact that some of their constituents don't use email. Some instructed their staffs to take "extra-special precautions before opening envelopes" as U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia said, but others attempted to project normalcy.

"We aren't changing anything," said U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat.

The exception is U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Nashville Democrat who's accepting mail in his Washington office but refusing it in his Music City district office.

"This is out of regard for the safety both of staff members who open the mail and U.S. Postal Service workers who deliver it," Cooper spokeswoman Katie Hill said. "We're still open for business, and folks can still call and email."

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker's staff said the former Chattanooga mayor received about 250,000 emails and postmarked letters last year, and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander gets "thousands of emails and letters a week," according to spokesman Jim Jeffries.

"Sen. Alexander appreciates hearing from Tennesseans in whatever way they think best to contact him," Jeffries said.

U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, a Republican who represents North Georgia, and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, whose district includes Chattanooga, said they haven't changed their mailing procedures. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., did not respond to a request for comment.

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@times freepress.com or 423-280-2025.

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