Bullet and Powder Threats in Baltimore Expose Mail Security Screening Gaps

By Matthew Harwood

A series of  threatening letters that contained bullets and white powder sent to Baltimore's City Hall and circuit court have exposed gaps in how U.S. mail is screened for threats, reports The Baltimore Sun.

Between Friday and Monday, City Hall and four judges at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse received five threatening letters, at least two of which had bullets inside. One letter that contained a white powder led to the evacuation of City Hall on Monday for 40 minutes. The powder inside was later deemed harmless by police. Investigators are conducting DNA analysis on the letters and envelopes sent by priority mail for clues.

After receiving a threatening letter with a bullet inside on Friday, Circuit Judge Wanda K. Heard wrote an e-mail complaining about the security breakdown, which she copied to others to warn them of the threat. She was incensed the letter made it to her.

"It should have never reached my law clerk or any member of my staff, for that matter!!! There is a breakdown in the system. The mail should have been scanned. Obviously, it wasn't," Heard wrote in the e-mail obtained by the Sun. "Anything could have been inside!! Anything!"

The Sun's  Bishop reports that the ultimate responsibility for screening mail rests with the U.S. Postal Service. But her investigation reveals that the postal service doesn't have the technology to screen for threats, even bullets. Rather the security process relies on mail clerks to identify suspicious packages and letters. Bishop reports:

The Postal Service screening system consists mainly of employee judgment. They ask a series of familiar questions at the service counter for mailings weighing 13 ounces or more - anything hazardous, breakable or perishable? - and expect truthful answers. And they report suspicious packages for inspection or run them through a biohazard detection system.

The system was set up in more than 270 processing and distribution centers, including Baltimore's, after the 2001 anthrax attacks, in which letters containing the deadly spores killed five people and sickened 17 others.

But so far, the system - used more than 8 million times nationwide since 2003 - has never alerted authorities to a single piece of suspect mail.

The episode has also shown a security disconnect in the delivery of U.S. mail and the presumption that it's safe. U.S. Postal Inspector JerVay Rodgers told the Sun that the Postal Service is not responsible for specially screening mail destined for courthouses. Judiciary spokeswoman Angelita Plemmer, however, said that courthouses are not responsible for screening the mail.

The question going forward appears to be this: Should high-profile individuals and organizations do additional screening to ensure their mail is safe?

(In 2006, former SM editor Robert Elliot reported on MailScope, a way to screen mail for hidden threats.)

♦ Photo of Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse in Baltimore, Maryland, by Maryland State Archive


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