Anthrax False Alarms

WaPo: Suspicious Powders, Packages Keep FBI Unit on Edge

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.”

Which is, of course, the only alternative. But it does demonstrate the enormity of the task. And the futility of the notion that we’ll be able to prevent all future attacks.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.