Ricin Letters: Is Poisoned Mail Connected to the Boston Marathon Bombings?

Following on the heels of the bombings in Boston on Monday, two letters containing ricin, a potentially leathal substance, arrived this week at off-site processing facilities  for the Senate and White House. The first letter, received Tuesday, was addressed to Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and tested positive in preliminary tests for ricin, a poison with a long history of use in mail-attacks. Today, initial reports indicate that a very similar letter, also testing positive, was received at the processing facility for the White House, addressed to the president.

Authorities are not drawing any links between these events and the bombings on Monday, although the Secret Service has described the two letters as being possibly related. The FBI and Capitol Police are collaborating in a joint-investigation of the Wicker letter, and, according to the Associated Press, have already identified a suspect, although they are declining to provide any comment. According to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), “The person that is a suspect writes a lot of letters to members.”

Several other senators noted that the system of filtering mail at off-site facilities, implemented in the aftermath of the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, has proven successful. These letters are received and processed at off-site screening facilities, where they are tested for a variety of toxins. In the 2001 anthrax attacks, 23 congressional staffers and Capitol policemen tested positive for the substance after it was mailed to the offices of Senators Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Though the attacks occurred soon after the events of 9/11, they were never connected to a foreign terrorist organization.

Since the anthrax attacks and the implementation of current safeguards, ricin has been used in a number of mail attacks against the federal government. In 2003, ricin-laced letters were mailed to the White House and the Department of Transportation by a disgruntled, anonymous business-owner who opposed new federal trucking regulations. These letters were caught at processing facilities and did not result in any casualties. However, in 2004, a similar letter was sent to Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), making its way to the mail room of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, affecting more than a dozen staffers. Although no suspects were apprehended in these attacks, available evidence pointed to them being perpetrated by Americans.

These types of attacks might have more to do with the increasing violence of disgruntled Americans than with any foreign terrorist organization. Violence towards congressional and state representatives has been steadily increasing over the years, usually spiking when controversial legislation is before congress. In 2013, six separate state representatives have received threats for their support of gun control measures. According to an FBI report, in the lead up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, threats against lawmakers spiked 300% over normal levels.

In the past decade, over 236 death threats have been made against members of Congress. In 2009, the FBI sought charges against 331 defendants for issuing threats against federal employees. In 2010, that number rose to 352. However, although death threats against members of Congress are on the rise, those deemed serious by the FBI are on the decline. Acts of physical violence against members of Congress, such as the attack on Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), are rarely preceded by threats of any kind. The vast majority of Americans who are investigated for threatening members of Congress are not prosecuted, owing to the lack of any evidence that they intended to carry out their threats.

Although ricin and anthrax might have more to do with domestic terrorism than foreign, the vast majority of threats against the federal government seem to violent in words only. With the low track record of successful prosecution against mail attacks, preventative measures that are already in place are the best defense we have.