Suspicious Packages: Not Bombs, but Still Volatile

January 26th, 2011 by Ellen Cornelius

On January 6, 2011, two suspicious packages were sent through the U.S. Mail to Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Maryland Secretary of Transportation Beverley K. Swaim-Staley. Upon opening, both packages produced odors, flames, and smoke. Unfortunately, automatic opening devices were not utilized, and the postal workers who opened the packages sustained minor injuries. While neither of these incendiary devices is considered a mail bomb nor contained anything explosive, incendiary devices bring the issue of mail screening to the fore.

Frank Schissler, a postal inspector, said that since 2005, U.S. postal workers have delivered a trillion pieces of mail, and 13 mail bombs have been discovered. Even though incidents that result in injury are extremely rare, the District of Columbia stopped government mail delivery on January 6. The next day, a suspicious package addressed to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano ignited at a postal facility in the 3300 block of V Street, Northeast, near the border with Maryland. The V Street postal facility receives, sorts, and screens mail for at least three federal government agencies. A second suspicious package was identified; however, it did not ignite. The postal facility was evacuated and mail rooms in government offices across the District of Columbia were secured. Operations were discontinued for the remainder of the day on Friday.

Postal Inspectors utilize six different technologies in mail screening. First, X-ray machines have been installed in screening facilities to detect weapons, improvised explosive devices, and contraband. Second, ambient air monitors are used to detect toxic industrial chemicals and chemical warfare agents. Third, anthrax spores can be detected by analyzing the DNA of an organism through a process called polymerase chain reaction. Fourth, biological detection systems are used as an early warning system for dangerous biological substances. Fifth, Closed Circuit Television is used as a tool to increase situational awareness. Sixth, mail is sterilized through irradiation, where mail is exposed to intense heat.

The U.S. Postal Service irradiates stamped first class business and letter-sized envelopes and flats, Express Mail, Priority Mail, and other packages with postage stamps that are addressed to specific government offices in zip codes 20200 through 20599. Mail with postage meter strips and mail that is insured, registered, or certified are not irradiated. All mail directed to the White House, Congress, and the Library of Congress is irradiated as well.

In 2007, the Department of Homeland Security’s Interagency Security Committee issued ”

Receiving and sending mail are essential functions for most government agencies. Continuity of Operations (COOP) plans are vital to each agency’s mail center. By designating an alternate location and training to perform services at a backup site, personnel can ensure that normal operations will continue if the primary mail operation must be terminated. Furthermore, the Postal Inspection Service has 18 mobile command centers and one mobile mail-screening station to detect chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive threats.

It’s clear that right now, contemporary technology and well-trained personnel are the best tools in defending against threats to the United States’ mail system.

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