Official flushes 'anthrax' down Capitol toilet with hundreds of tourists nearby

Lawmakers on Wednesday expressed outrage that a supervisor with the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) flushed a white powder from a plastic bag labeled “Anthrax” down a toilet at the Capitol while hundreds of tourists milled around nearby.

After The Hill broke this story on Wednesday morning, legislators called for more staff training and expressed shock and dismay that an operational supervisor disregarded proper security protocols and failed to notify U.S. Capitol Police immediately.

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Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of House Appropriations Committee’s Legislative Branch subcommittee, which oversees the CVC’s budget, said Saturday’s incident shows further training is necessary to ensure that proper procedures are followed.

 “Clearly we need to make sure that our visitor guides and supervisors and all of our personnel are familiar with what they should do with a suspicious package or suspicious substance, and that certainly does not include flushing it down the toilet,” said Wasserman Schultz in an interview.

 Wasserman Schultz reserved further comment until she was able to review the facts with Capitol Police and CVC officials.

 After being notified by a visitor assistant that the powder-filled bag was in the CVC’s Exhibition Hall, an operational supervisor allegedly retrieved a pair of plastic gloves and brought it to a nearby bathroom, where he flushed its contents down a toilet.

 About an hour later, Capitol Police were notified. The hazardous devices unit found no traces of harmful biological components, such as anthrax spores, during an inspection Saturday that covered the restroom, the route the supervisor allegedly took there and the area where the bag was found.

The Hill is not naming the operational supervisor who flushed the substance because the identity of the employee has not been confirmed by an on-the-record source.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the oversight subcommittee, said that the incident warranted a “rigorous” review of CVC procedures. He had also not been briefed of Saturday’s events before the article was published on TheHill.com.

 “There’s no excuse not to notify [Capitol Police] when we know this building is a target, and it’s not like this would be the first time we’ve had an attack of this kind,” he said. “There’s no excuse for not taking this situation seriously.”

 House Administration Committee Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) said he would bring the issue up with Capitol Police during a scheduled meeting on Wednesday afternoon.

 Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer told The Hill that Saturday’s event was not typical of CVC staffers when they discover a suspicious package.

 “I think it was a human error,” he said. “I think it was an aberration and 99.9 percent of the time the staff in general does an outstanding job. This was a hiccup — it shouldn’t have happened, and we did get lucky.”

 Officials with the Capitol's Office of Compliance plan to launch an investigation into Saturday's incident within the next week, according to several sources. The investigation will look at CVC security protocols and report back to CVC officials and Capitol Police on whether they are adequate and whether they were appropriately followed.

Capitol Police briefed CVC staff on Wednesday morning, saying that no one in the building was ever in any danger. It is unclear what the white powdery substance was.

 A reporter for The Hill attended the briefing by police, who went over procedural guidelines for CVC staff dealing with suspicious packages or substances. Doors to the meeting room were open, and no identification was required to attend.

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“We have a wide variety of means to identify areas that are at risk,” the officer briefing CVC staff said. “No area was identified as being at risk. That’s all I can say."

 Capitol Police are investigating Saturday’s incident by reviewing video footage and interviewing employees involved in the incident to try and discover who might have left the bag with the white powder, the officer said.

The Capitol Police officer advised CVC staffers that if they find a suspicious package or substance, they should not touch it because it could infect both them and the air supply. Instead, they should immediately notify either a supervisor or a Capitol Police officer.

 In a 10-minute question-and-answer session, the Capitol Police officer said that there is no reason to believe an extremist group was behind Saturday’s incident. The officer was responding to a CVC employee, who noted that extremist-group websites have promoted leaving suspicious packages in public areas.

 “There is intelligence out there that extremists do intend to use as a tactic to place bags with the intent of wearing out response personnel,” the Capitol Police officer said. “Have we witnessed that? Not that we’re aware.”

 The officer said that police routinely handle suspicious packages but that they have not linked any to a terrorist organization.

 It remained unclear why the operational supervisor allegedly decided to flush the bag’s contents down the toilet. But visitor assistants with the CVC said there is pressure to keep tours going at all times and that by notifying Capitol Police, it would interrupt the day’s traffic flow.

 While the area was cordoned off during the Capitol Police’s inspection of the bag and its route, tours continued in normal fashion throughout the day Saturday, according to three tour guides who spoke on background.

Capitol Police said they could not comment further on a pending investigation, stressing that no dangerous materials were found.

 CVC officials did not respond to a request for comment.

 Calls for suspicious packages are common on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, police locked down the CVC’s entrance for 30 minutes while they inspected an abandoned camera bag. The bag proved to be harmless.
Capitol Hill has been the target of two previous biological attacks.

In 2001, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to news media outlets and lawmakers, resulting in five deaths. Five congressional office buildings and the U.S. Supreme Court building were closed and decontaminated before eventually reopening in January 2002.

In 2004 a letter containing ricin was found in former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) mailroom.

This story was originally posted at 12:02 p.m. and updated at 8:44 p.m.