Alarms at the Capitol: Ricin puts DC on edge

A half-dozen suspicious letters — including one targeting President Obama that contained the deadly poison ricin — prompted investigations Wednesday and added confusion to an already tense environment on Capitol Hill.

Most of the envelopes identified as suspicious were false alarms, but the letter to Obama was the second in two days to contain ricin, a poison that can kill people even in tiny doses. 

The first was sent to Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and was discovered at an off-site Senate postal screening center on Tuesday morning. 

The FBI has taken the lead in investigating the ricin letters sent to Obama and Wicker. 

On Wednesday evening, Paul Kevin Curtis, 45, of Corinth, Miss., was arrested in connection with the letters.

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The letters follow the deadly terrorist bombing Monday at the Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured more than 170. Authorities said they had found no connection between the marathon bombings and the poison letters, but the timing of the attacks has added to jitters in Washington. 

Authorities in Boston seemed to be narrowing in on a possible suspect in the bombings, but at press time had announced no arrests. The president is scheduled to take part in an interfaith service for the victims of the attack on Thursday.

For a time Wednesday morning, it seemed new suspicious letters were being found on an hourly basis. The reports from Capitol Hill were interspersed with news reports on Boston about a possible arrest. 

Those reports, based on unnamed law enforcement sources, were false, and prompted the FBI to ask the media to be more careful. 

“Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate,” the FBI said. “Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”

The Senate’s mail was halted for the remainder of the week, a move made after the Capitol Police shut down parts of the Russell and Hart Senate Office Buildings on Wednesday as they investigated letters sent to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and another office.

The state offices of Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) also reported receiving suspicious packages on Wednesday. Both were investigated and found to be non-threatening.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said the Capitol Police, which is assisting the FBI with its investigation, has a suspect in the ricin letters case. 

Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer, citing the ongoing investigation, declined to provide any details about the letters’ sender, saying only that they were postmarked from Memphis, Tenn.

The Secret Service said the letter to the president was sent on April 16 and discovered at a remote White House mail screening facility.

“This facility routinely identifies letters or parcels that require secondary screening or scientific testing before delivery,” the Secret Service said in a statement. “The Secret Service White House mail screening facility is a remote facility, not located near the White House complex, that all White House mail goes through.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president had been briefed twice on the investigation. “He was briefed last night and again this morning,” Carney said.

The FBI also said that a second and separate mail screening facility tested positive for ricin on Wednesday morning and was undergoing further tests.

“It is important to note that operations at the White House have not been affected as a result of the investigation,” the FBI said. “The investigation into these letters remains ongoing, and more letters may still be received. There is no indication of a connection to the attack in Boston.”

Security in Washington has been tightened since the Boston attacks, with Capitol Police closely scrutinizing the ID badges of Hill staff members as they enter buildings. And some visitors are being asked to take off their shoes as they’re screened for dangerous items.

Senators were initially briefed about the Wicker letter on Tuesday night during a classified intelligence briefing on developments in the Boston bombing investigation. They were told to instruct their staff to take extra precautions and alert authorities if they see something out of the ordinary.

“The letter was not outwardly suspicious, which is usually a clue,” said Gainer.

“But we want Senate state office employees to beware of what we know, but they must be careful with all mail they open, follow the procedures with which they have been skilled.”

In 2004, a letter addressed to then-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 that can be manufactured from the bean’s 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.

— Daniel Strauss and Justin Sink contributed.