April 25 2007 11:42 AM

The anthrax attacks of 2001 brought to light in a high-profile fashion just how vulnerable the mail stream can be to terrorist attacks. Lives were lost, buildings were evacuated and mailboxes, mail centers and the mail itself came under intense scrutiny.


But time has passed and anthrax has been out of the headlines for a few years. As a whole, many feel the danger is past and the mail is safe. Unfortunately, the threat of contamination by biological, chemical, explosive or nuclear agents remains quite real. To combat these ever-evolving threats, it's vital to separate some of the most common myths and wishful thinking from reality.


Myth 1: The Danger Is Largely Past

In public perception, mail contamination peaked in the early 2000s, with a flurry of anthrax attacks and the Unabomber's crazed mail bombings. Since then, many believe there have been no further attacks. The result is complacency and a false sense of security. In reality, mail-bound attacks continue. As recently as last fall, a major government agency received anthrax in the mail. The attacks are largely contained in the interest of precluding copycat acts, discouraging publicity-hungry perpetrators and avoiding sharing information on vulnerabilities with criminals and the public at large.


The truth: Lack of headlines does not mean that the threat no longer exists.


Myth 2: The Postal Service Is Protecting Us

USPS offices and officials are doing the best they can with limited resources and budgets. But the Postal Service mandate is production, not protection. The USPS struggles to process and distribute a huge volume of mail, while competing with commercial carriers such as FedEx and UPS. While the Postal Service has invested in screening equipment, it's not in every facility, and they don't have the processes in place for effective security.


The truth: In 2006, there were several instances of contaminated or suspicious mail getting through the USPS screening process and into federal facilities.


Myth 3: Commercial Carriers Have Rigorous Security

Commercial carriers are also driven by production. They make money by being faster, easier and more efficient than the USPS.


The truth: Slowing parcel and package flow to screen for contaminants is simply not good business when "it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight."


Myth 4: Look Out for White Powder

Anthrax needn't take the form of white powder, or even powder. Anthrax spores could be mixed with a powder of any color or potentially be incorporated in another form that would allow spore dispersion. A recent scare, fortunately a hoax, included embedding glass particles in an envelope's glue. After a worker shredded a fingertip opening the letter, a note inside announced they'd been exposed to HIV. In other cases, hypodermic needles have been enclosed and positioned in mail to injure and potentially infect a recipient. 


The truth: There are many dangerous substances that can be used for mail contamination, and they come in many forms.


Myth 5: Focus on the "Suspicious"

Clearly, parcels with wires sticking out or an oddly addressed letter from a hostile foreign country are worth attention. Unfortunately, terrorists and hoaxers go to great lengths to make deliveries look like legitimate mail with proper postage. Also, calling the individual on the return address to verify the leaky liquid inside the package is safe is no guarantee of security.


The truth: Anyone with access to a color printer can make a good facsimile of a business or government envelope or mailing label.


Myth 6: There Are Simple Security Strategies, Like the "Snip Test"

One mail facility believed it was safeguarding a prominent recipient with a "snip test." Workers clipped off a corner of each envelope and gave it a good shake if no white powder or other suspicious substance came out, it was good-to-go. This was perceived to work well until a clever hoaxer put a smaller envelope inside a larger one. The staffer who opened the inner envelope was immediately dusted with a white substance.


The truth: Perpetrators of mail-bound terrorism constantly evolve new strategies and tactics.


Mail threats are real and evolving. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to ensuring mail remains safe and secure at all times. Here are three simple steps you can take to ensure optimal protection:


1. Tap the Experts: Information on current threats isn't well disseminated, but there are mail security experts who can help. They can help assess specific vulnerabilities and suggest the best procedural and technical approaches to protect workers and facilities.


2. Educate Everyone: Mail screeners and processors need thorough and updated training on today's detection processes, facility security and modes of personal protection. Mail safety managers must educate up the chain to ensure management understands the threats and supports their efforts. Employees must also be aware of emergency protocols and steps for safety. More than once, an employee has raced through a facility with a suspicious letter in hand, contaminating multiple areas before anyone had the presence of mind to contain the threat.


3. Train in Continuous Cycles: The organization as a whole must recognize that mail safety requires constant diligence and focused, periodic reassessment. This is necessary to combat ever-changing threats and perpetrators who will continuously find new ways to thwart protection efforts.


Don Shanks, Director of Engineering forSoBran Inc. can be reached at 703-352-1344 or email dshanks@sobran-inc.com.