Springfield State Journal Register

February 7, 2004

Risky business


WASHINGTON - After you've worked on Capitol Hill awhile, you get used to the bomb-sniffing dogs, police barricades and metal detectors.

But the office evacuations and white-suited hazmat crews that showed up in response to the ricin scare this week reminded congressional staffers that they work in one of the world's top terrorism targets.

"It does make you a little nervous sometimes, and sometimes it makes you a little scared," said Matthew Jones, 23, who opens mail in the congressional office of Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana. "But you have a job to do."

Jones has worked on Capitol Hill less than a year. He graduated from Illinois State University in May 2003 and started work here 13 days later. He's from Arthur, which has a population of 2,400 and where "nothing like this ever happens," Jones said.

He was referring to the deadly poison ricin that was found by a mail worker in the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Monday afternoon. The discovery closed three Senate office buildings. Two reopened Thursday. The third building, which houses Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Peter Fitzgerald and their staffs, was scheduled to reopen Monday.

Those who were around for the 2001 anthrax attacks say that anxiety is much lower this time.

For one thing, no one is getting sick. During the anthrax attacks, postal workers were ill and five people ultimately died. There were long lines of nervous staff members lining up for the antibiotic Cipro.

Former East Peoria resident Maureen Schlicksup, 25, who opens mail for Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, said she isn't overly concerned about the ricin because nothing so far has been found in any of the three House office buildings, which are on the opposite side of the U.S. Capitol from the Senate office buildings.

"I'm probably a little more cautious and probably a little more alert than I was," Schlicksup  said.

Another major difference is that the emergency and law enforcement response is faster and more coordinated, they say. New, sensitive air filters have been installed in the office ventilation systems to better protect workers.

"We've learned some lessons from anthrax, and that's helped keep people's fear down," said Joe Shoemaker, 43, who works as communications director for Durbin and is formerly of Taylorville. Durbin's office is one floor below Frist's.

Shoemaker's wife, who also works in the Senate, was pregnant during the anthrax attacks, "so we were really freaked out - not for ourselves, but for the twins, who were not yet born."

Some say the shock value has worn off since the anthrax attacks.

"It's not an unusual occurrence that an office gets a strange envelope or strange package and the Capitol police would come up and probably make people in the mail room go to a different room and block off the hallways," said Sally Brown-Shaklee, 25, who supervises the mail procedures for Durbin's office.

One of the post-anthrax changes in Durbin's mailroom is that interns are no longer allowed to open the mail, Brown-Shaklee said.

Although many safety procedures were added after the anthrax incident, the system still isn't failsafe.

Last March, Durbin's office was evacuated after mailroom workers reported receiving a bulging envelope that felt like it contained a granular substance. The substance later was identified as rice.

The letter writer had suggested that Congress send rice, not troops, to Iraq. But the rice was crushed during the decontamination process that all mail to the federal government goes through since the anthrax attack.

The mail is diverted to New Jersey to undergo irradiation to kill bacteria.

Corners of envelopes are snipped and the envelopes shaken to detect possibly hazardous substances. However, the irradiation process has no effect on ricin, a lethal poison made from castor beans.

"It makes you wonder whether they won't move to an all-paperless way of communicating with senators and congressmen," Fitzgerald said earlier this week as he worked from a small office inside the Capitol while the Senate office buildings were closed.

"The mail is becoming more and more difficult. People send me books and pictures, and after going through irradiation, they're pretty much ruined."

The security changes since Sept. 11, 2001, also have altered the physical terrain in Washington. Concrete barriers block the streets alongside the Senate and House office buildings. Taxis no longer can pull into the Capitol driveway. Machines to detect explosives were installed at building entrances in addition to the metal detectors and X-ray machines.

Each weekday morning, long lines form outside the House and Senate office buildings as thousands of congressional staffers wait their turn to go through the metal detectors. Four police officers guard each entrance during the busiest hours instead of the previous two.

The lines grew longer after a Halloween incident when two aides to Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, absentmindedly sent a toy gun through the X-ray machine that wasn't immediately noticed by Capitol police officers. Believing the X-ray image to be of a real gun, police swarmed the House office building, barring all exits until the mistake was realized.

Those who work on Capitol Hill say they don't mind the inconvenience of the extra security.

"I feel much safer," Brown-Shaklee said. "Even when I come up the elevator and they say, 'Excuse me, miss, you can't come down this hallway right now.' I'm glad they're looking out for us and doing their jobs."