The U.S. Secret Service acknowledged yesterday that it waited six days to notify the FBI and other agencies about the discovery of a ricin-contaminated letter addressed to the White House and said it had implemented new procedures to eliminate such delays in the future.
Administration officials insisted that the delay, and three months of subsequent secrecy about the case, did not threaten public health or the FBI's criminal investigation because the poison was deemed low-grade and because law enforcement authorities were eventually brought into the process.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that President Bush was not notified about the ricin mailing because it was intercepted and did not pose a threat to anyone.
The letter was one of two nearly identical mailings -- signed by "Fallen Angel," who described himself as the "fleet owner of a tanker company" -- that were intercepted by federal officials in October and November. The letters included metal vials containing powdered ricin and a threat to release the poison if proposed trucking regulations governing how often drivers must rest were not blocked. The regulations went into effect Jan. 4.
The first envelope, discovered Oct. 15 at an airport mail facility in Greenville, S.C., was publicized heavily by the FBI, and a $100,000 reward has been offered for information leading to an arrest in the case. But the letter to the White House was not disclosed until Tuesday, after the discovery of ricin in the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Authorities said yesterday they have not found any direct links between the earlier letters and the Senate case.
The letter addressed to the White House was intercepted on Nov. 6 at an off-site sorting facility that handles White House mail, according to Secret Service spokeswoman Ann Roman. An initial field test was negative, but a Nov. 7 test and a laboratory test on Nov. 10 showed the substance was ricin, Roman said.
It was not until Nov. 12, however, that the White House, FBI, U.S. Postal Service and other federal agencies were notified, Roman said. The Department of Homeland Security oversaw a series of conference calls on Nov. 13 to discuss the case, several officials said.
Lawmakers and some law enforcement and public health officials sharply criticized the delay. Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said he believed the Bush administration did the nation a "disservice" by not immediately disclosing that a vial of ricin addressed to the White House had been intercepted.
Frist, however, said Congress receives "thousands and thousands of threats," and he did not expect to be notified until a certain threshold was reached.
U.S. Postal Service spokesman Gerry McKiernan said mail officials "would have liked to have known earlier" than Nov. 12 about the ricin letter, which passed through a regional postal facility in Chattanooga so that steps could have been taken to protect postal workers. McKiernan said such steps ultimately were unnecessary because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined by then that the ricin was not particularly dangerous.
Staff writers Helen Dewar and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.