The mail facility at Reagan National Airport shut down for 90 minutes last month after a grainy, green powder spilled from a package from Ethiopia, raising fears of a biological hazard. It turned out to be ground-up dried peas.
The Columbia Heights Metro station was shut down recently after something mushy was spotted there. It was chicken and brown rice. A few weeks ago, traces of a white substance were found on a package at the Pentagon, triggering concern. An analysis showed that the mystery material was Alfredo sauce.
Ever since the deadly anthrax mailings 21/2 years ago, the FBI's National Capital Response Squad has responded to thousands of false alarms involving suspicious substances or packages. Lately, the squad has handled an average of five to 10 incidents a week, but the numbers can jump much higher, often depending on events at home or abroad.
"In the very beginning, it was hard not to think every time you roll out the door that it's the end of the world," said FBI supervisor Jim Rice, who heads the squad. "Then you get a lot of historical perspective. We still treat each one like it's real until we prove that it's not."
Interviews with Rice and other agents on the squad provided a look at the challenges they face in Washington, where hypersensitivity over unfamiliar substances and unattended packages can lead to evacuations, road closures and traffic jams. Nowhere else in the nation are the scares more prevalent than here.
So far, nearly every case has turned out to be a false alarm -- either a result of suspicions that proved unfounded or a hoax. Agents still are attempting to determine how traces of ricin wound up in a letter-opening machine in the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). The traces were discovered Feb. 2, and squad members spent days at the scene. No one was harmed, but the episode was a reminder of the importance of this often tedious work.
The squad, created in 1999, more than doubled in size in fall 2001 to handle the spike in calls generated by fears about anthrax. It now has 15 agents, all of whom are hazmat specialists, bomb or crime evidence technicians or SWAT team members.
In most instances, the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, made up of members of 24 federal and local agencies, goes along and works on the follow-up investigation.
White powder alert
It's shortly before 9 a.m. on a recent Friday. On the fourth floor of the FBI's Washington field office, just blocks from the U.S. Capitol, some agents are at their desks, working on investigations of suspicious incidents.
A call comes in.
An agent from the National Capital Response Squad grabs a marker and begins writing on an oversized pad on an easel:
"White powder letter at the Navy yard. Threatens potus. Appears to be jail mail."
"Potus" is shorthand for "president of the United States." "Jail mail" is correspondence from a prisoner. Two agents head out to examine the letter, which initially aroused suspicion at a government mail-processing facility in Washington. It was then secured in a protective container and brought to the Washington Navy Yard in Southeast for further examination.
The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services hazmat team, already on the scene, does field tests for biological hazards, radiation and explosives. Everything comes up negative. The team briefs FBI agents, who keep a distance from the letter for safety reasons.
The agents then call FBI headquarters to tell what they found. The case is not over: FBI officials decide that the threat to the president calls for a criminal investigation. They notify a Secret Service agent assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and the probe begins.
The agents take the powdery material to a lab to confirm that it is not hazardous.
"Jail mail" is common, agents say, and often contains talcum powder, plaster or dried toothpaste. According to the agents, inmates in state prisons sometimes send the letters hoping a federal conviction will land them in a federal prison with better conditions. In other cases, prisoners send threatening letters and sign the names of enemies they want to get in trouble.
Kevin Finnerty, an agent on the Capital Response Squad, said prisoners typically would not have the expertise or the materials to send letters laced with anthrax. But he said all threats must be taken seriously.
Prisoners are not the only ones known to pull hoaxes. Finnerty recalled an episode in which someone left a package in the Friendship Heights Metro station. The unknown culprit wanted to write "anthrax" on the package, but kept misspelling the word and crossing it out.
Afterward, Finnerty said, some agents quipped: "If you can't spell anthrax, you probably can't make it."
Response Squad agents estimated that 40 percent of the calls they handle involve hoaxes. Staging such a hoax in a mass-transit system carries a maximum prison term of five years to life, depending on the circumstances, according to the U.S. attorney's office. Sending a threatening letter to a federal official carries a maximum prison term of 10 years.
Finnerty and other agents said that it is necessary to respond to false alarms, but that their time could be better spent.
"I think it's a frustration for the police, the fire department, other agencies and us," Finnerty said. "You can be working on something very important when you have to go out and investigate and then you have to do a follow up investigation. That eats up manpower."
Paste from 'Planet Earth'
At 12:05 p.m. on that recent Friday, the squad's phone rings again. An agent writes on the big pad: "letter containing brown paste to u.s. patent office; talks about C-4 at Navy yard; FPS; dcfd-hazmat on the scene."
The notation means that a threatening letter, addressed to the Patent Office, talks about explosives, that the letter is at the Navy Yard, that the Federal Protective Service has been alerted and that the fire department's hazmat crew has arrived at the scene.
Two agents rush to the Navy Yard and again find no evidence of a terrorist plot. The address on the large yellow envelope includes the words "Planet Earth" and "Milky Way." The "brown paste" appears to be a smushed sandwich or banana bread. The letter contains no reference to explosives, as originally thought. But this call, too, requires some follow-up.
Agents locate and interview the sender, who has some mental health problems but is deemed harmless. No criminal case is opened.
The FBI squad does not go out every time a suspicious substance is reported. The U.S. Capitol Police hazmat team responds to more of these calls, an average of three to 10 a day on Capitol Hill. Most are cleared without summoning the FBI, said Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer.
Some fears are relatively easy to dispel: cleanser in a restroom, white powder near a box of powdered doughnuts, creamer near a coffee maker, a crushed mint or candy on a subway platform, talcum powder in jail mail. In one case, a local real estate broker sent sand in a mass mailing to promote beachfront property.
Still, agent Rice said, the recent discovery of ricin in Frist's office was a stark reminder that "the next real one is around the corner. You know it's coming. This is a place that knows it's a bulls eye."
'I'm scared to death'
In the fall of 2001, after anthrax-laced letters killed five people, including two Washington postal workers, and sickened 17 others, the pace was much more hectic. The squad was inundated with thousands of calls about suspected anthrax. Some were handled by phone, Rice said.
A typical call, Rice said, was the one he got from a person who said something to the effect: "There's white powder. I'm scared to death."
"Where is it?" Rice asked.
"Next to the donuts."
"Can you describe it?"
"It looks like the white powder on the doughnuts"
"Well, have you had some of your doughnuts?"
"It's your sugar."
Not all cases are so easily solved. On March 2, for example, six FBI agents at the postal facility at Reagan National Airport were puzzled by the dry, green substance that spewed from a package.
"The powder was everywhere. It got on other mail. It got on the floor," recalled one of the agents, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used.
"I was sitting on the scene thinking: 'If we can't explain this away, cancel my dinner reservations. This is not going to make a lot of people happy. It's going to be a long night, and it's going to become a much bigger deal.' "
The airport fire department conducted field tests, which turned up negative. But because field tests are not regarded as foolproof, the squad went a step further.
Two agents went to an apartment on 16th Street NW, to which the package was addressed. A man answered the door. He seemed a little surprised to see the FBI, one agent recalled. "Yes," he said, he was expecting a package from relatives in Ethiopia and explained the product, made of ground-up peas, was used to season sauteed vegetables and chicken.
Complicating their work, agents said, it is not uncommon for hazmat squads to get false positives for dangerous substances in field tests.
Last Nov. 6, field tests conducted by a private contractor showed traces of anthrax spores at the mail-sorting facility at the Anacostia Naval Station. Consequently, postal officials closed 11 mail-handling and post offices in the Washington area the next day. But subsequent tests at the Naval Medical Research Center in Silver Spring were negative.
Other cities with high numbers of false alarms for hazardous substances are New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and Birmingham, the FBI said.
'Not another one'
FBI agent Stephen Fogarty of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Washington, who has responded to many scares, said: "We go to so many that a lot of times you think, 'Not another one.' I think sometimes you have to be cognizant that we may see all these strange things every day" but the public does not.
Authorities sometimes take extra precautions such as evacuating buildings, as they did at Union Station on April 5 when someone spotted an unattended backpack that smelled of petroleum. Inside was a leaking can of lighter fluid.
In most instances, the local police or fire departments decide which streets to close or which buildings to evacuate, sometimes with advice from the FBI. Agents say the measures may inconvenience the public. But they say the security steps are necessary.
Rice said he sees no end in sight to the false alarms.
"People are worried," he said. "People are scared because they see Madrid on the news. They see what goes on. They see stuff in Pakistan."