By Jordy Yager and Jeremy Herb - 04/17/13 01:02 AM EDT
A letter addressed to Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) tested positive for ricin on Tuesday, according to U.S. Capitol Police.
Capitol Police intercepted a letter at an off-site postal screening center Tuesday morning and advised senators in an evening briefing that none of their offices were in danger, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said.
“There was a letter sent to a member that had gone through our processing facility — not on-site here, but in the area — and it was identified as containing ricin, which is a dangerous substance,” Landrieu said following a briefing for senators on the investigation of the Boston bombings.
“The police are in full investigation. They don’t think that anyone in the Capitol complex is in any danger,” she said. “They’ll go through regular decontamination procedures and they’ll notify all the appropriate offices.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the letter was addressed to Wicker and that he was not aware of any other dangerous letters.
“All we know now is just one,” Reid said in brief comments after the meeting.
The Senate offsite mail facility will be closed for the next few days for further testing and investigation by Capitol Police and the FBI, Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance W. Gainer said in a statement. Gainer said exterior markings on the envelope were not suspicious, adding that it was postmarked from Memphis, Tenn., and had no return address.
Wicker’s office referred all calls to police, but did release a statement from the Mississippi Republican.
“This matter is part of an ongoing investigation by the United States Capitol Police and FBI," Wicker said. "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. Gayle and I appreciate everyone’s thoughts and prayers.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said Capitol Police have a suspect, who has been known to write letters to members of Congress.
Senators were being briefed Tuesday evening in a classified setting on developments in the Boston bombings when by the office of the Senate sergeant at arms informed them of the ricin letter.
The news brought back unpleasant memories for many senators.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) declined to comment on the situation because he said it brought back too many memories of the 2001 letter containing anthrax that was addressed to him but intercepted before it was delivered. Letters containing anthrax were sent to Leahy and then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
After the 2001 anthrax attacks, all mail sent to the Capitol was funneled through a screening facility in Capitol Heights, Md., where it is tested for dangerous substances.
McCaskill said, “The bottom line is the process we had in place worked.”
In 2004 a letter addressed to former Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) also tested positive for ricin after it was found to contain a white powder while being sorted in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The Senate office buildings were closed and decontaminated, but authorities never solved the case.
Ricin is a poison found in castor beans, which can be manufactured from castor bean waste materials, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Ricin works by getting inside the cells of a person’s body and preventing the cells from making the proteins they need. Without the proteins, cells die. Eventually this is harmful to the whole body, and death may occur,” the CDC warns.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FBI Director Robert Mueller briefed the senators on the latest developments in Boston.
Investigators at the Marine Base in Quantico, Va., are examining forensic evidence from the Boston crime scene as authorities try to piece together the first terrorist bombing on U.S. soil in more than a decade.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said the examination was likely to be completed in the next few days and will yield valuable clues on whether the attack was domestic or foreign.
“I have great faith that an arrest is going to be made,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said. “I don’t think it’s going to be the day after tomorrow, but that’s okay. It’s going to happen.”
President Obama called the “heinous and cowardly” bombing an “act of terrorism” and Attorney General Eric Holder said a full-scale investigation is underway with nearly a dozen agencies helping to analyze evidence, conduct extensive interviews and comb through hours of video footage.
“Although it is not yet clear who executed this attack, whether it was an individual or group, or whether it was carried out with support or involvement from a terrorist organization — either foreign or domestic — we will not rest until the perpetrators are brought to justice,” said Holder said.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on Homeland Security, said the fact that no one had taken credit for the attack suggested it could have been carried out by a single terrorist unaffiliated with any group, a point echoed by Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
“We don’t know until investigation is over, but it was under the radar,” Ruppersberger told reporters after the House briefing Tuesday evening.
“People are saying, ‘Are you upset you didn’t get the intelligence?’ Well there are reasons why things happened,” he said, referring to failed bombers who hid explosives in their shoe and underwear and who were recruited by former al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki.
Security has been tightened in Washington since the bombings and is likely to be tightened further in light of the ricin letter.
Trash cans lay empty and on their sides to deter a potential bomber from using them as weapons — as authorities suspect to be the case in Boston — and some visitors were asked to take off their shoes before entering buildings.
McCaul said the device used in Boston appeared to be a pressure-cooker bomb. He said it could have been set to explode by using a timer or a remote trigger such as a cellphone, which has spurred officials to sift through phone records made around the time of the blasts.
But after meeting with Clapper, Feinstein said authorities didn’t know what kind of device was actually used.
“We know nothing about a pressure cooker being used,” Feinstein said. “I think that’s speculation.”
Authorities in Boston said two crude bombs were responsible for the devastation, and that initial reports suggesting more devices were found were incorrect.
Obama largely echoed federal, state and local law enforcement officials who on Tuesday were tight-lipped about any leads they might have. The officials also refused to say whether anyone was in custody.
Chambliss told reporters after meeting with Clapper that although there did not appear to be any intelligence about the bombings beforehand, he does not believe there was an intelligence breakdown.
Napolitano, Mueller, and National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander separately briefed House members Tuesday evening. The House briefing was initially scheduled to be about cybersecurity, but lawmakers anticipated the bombings would be discussed at length.
A former federal prosecutor, McCaul said the attacks were a reminder that the country must remain vigilant of possible terrorist attacks and take steps to guard against that constant threat.
“Everybody always says the shoe is going to drop again, and it did,” he said. “It shows that we’re still vulnerable. Now do we want to change our everyday lives? No. But we need to recognize that we are a country that still needs to maintain a high level of security but balance that security with an open society.”
Obama met Tuesday with his counterterrorism team, including Napolitano, Holder, Mueller, and counterterrorism aide Lisa Monaco.
Obama said that it will “take time to follow every lead” but pledged that ”we will find whoever harmed our citizens and bring them to justice.”
— Daniel Strauss, Russell Berman and Carlo Munoz contributed to this report.
— Updated at 9:32 p.m.