With all congressional offices closed in Washington, D.C., other governmental offices at the Capitol and postal officials at Cornell are simultaneously developing precautionary measures and urging calm in response to recent anthrax threats.
The Washington, D.C. office of Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-26th), whose district includes Tompkins County, has been closed since Wednesday evening for an “environmental sweep” of congressional offices, said Hinchey’s press contact, Kevin O’Connell.
While they wait for their office to reopen tomorrow morning, Hinchey’s Washington staff members are conducting business from home. All district offices have remained open.
Beyond this weekend’s inspections, Hinchey’s staff has implemented several precautionary measures, the first and foremost being “a more stringent screening process for mail,” O’Connell said.
“Before any mail comes into the Washington office, it goes through both postal inspectors and a division of the Capitol Police Department called Threat Assessment Services,” he explained.
Additionally, various roads around the Capitol have been closed, with all vehicles subject to thorough checks and all drivers required to show identification in order to enter the Capitol.
“These procedures have always been in place, but before now the checks were random,” O’Connell said. “Now, the process is being taken more seriously.”
O’Connell stresses that the threat so far is directed at government and media offices — and even in Washington, evidence of anthrax has been limited to a small area in one Senate building. Thus, he says, there is no need for panic, particularly among private citizens. Still, he urges constituents to be wary of unusual-looking mail.
“Be cautious, but live your life,” O’Connell advises.
Despite the reality of the currently limited nature of the anthrax threat, moves to avert a wider threat have reached far beyond the Capitol. The screening of mail has become a central component of the set of precautionary measures being taken around the country, and Cornell itself is not immune.
Similar to the approach in Washington, Cornell’s postal services are emphasizing more stringent enforcement of existing security measures.
Employees are undergoing extra training sessions to learn how to better recognize and deal with suspicious mail, said Greg Kilmer, assistant director for mail and special transportation services.
The University’s Internal Mail Center, one division of the postal department, deals with, among other issues, poorly addressed mail.
“Previously, the approach was to use a database to forward [poorly addressed] mail, and if that was not possible, to open it,” Kilmer said.
Now, he assured, such mail would not be opened; rather, campus police would immediately be notified. In addition, latex gloves have been made available to all employees.
This, however, is the short-term strategy. “The next plan,” Kilmer said, “will be to implement a secure environment for opening suspicious mail.”
Cornell’s other mail division, the Post Market (also called the Contract Station), is a United States post station run through Cornell and operated by University employees.
Because of its national status, the student mail that goes through the Post Market has been subject to prior screening by several U.S. post offices in the area. But since Cornell has its own zip code, once this mail reaches the University post station, the U.S. Postal Service relinquishes responsibility to the University.
In addition to the precautions being taken by the mail center, post station employees have been warned not to alter or manipulate anything because, Kilmer said, suspicious mail could turn into a possible crime scene.
So far, Cornell has had to deal with one incident in which an employee received what Kilmer refers to as “a suspicious letter.”
Through a “university-alert” e-mail, Andy Garcia-Rivera, director of environmental health and safety, informed the campus community of the incident and provided detailed advice about handling suspicious mail, as well as numbers to call.
But Kilmer remains calm and urges others to do so as well.
“We are encouraging people not to blow this out of proportion. It just requires a little extra diligence,” Kilmer said.
Archived article by Erica Gilbert-Levin