TRENTON, N.J., Oct. 16 (UPI) -- U.S. Post Offices are on alert for suspicious packages or letters that may harbor anthrax and in New Jersey, where two letters laden with the pathogen were mailed to New York and Washington, it is a daunting task.
Steve Bahrle, branch president of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union Local 308, which represents workers at the Trenton N.J. postal processing center, said the Trenton center where the two letters were processed is a central repository for smaller mail centers in the area. He said it distributes "several millions pieces of mail each day" to west, central and south New Jersey.
Mail processed there contains a Trenton postmark, though the building is actually located on Route 130 in Hamilton, N.J., on the outskirts of Trenton.
Bahrle said mail is moved through "Advance Facer Canceling" or AFC machines that mark each piece with codes indicating when and where it was processed. That procedure allowed investigators to trace the letters sent to NBC Nightly News in New York and the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Bahrle said he was notified about the letters over the weekend and he and coworkers received an anthrax briefing on Monday. He said mail handlers were wearing gloves, which are normally provided by Postal Service but he saw no one wearing masks. Typically, mail handlers are not allowed to wear mask unless upon a physician's recommendation, and Bahrle said he is not sure if that restriction had been lifted.
One mail carrier in Lakewood, Ohio, speaking on condition of anonymity, told United Press International he is angry because his employer "is doing nothing to help us out or protect us."
The carrier, whose 400-customer route requires him to handle between 3,000 and 4,000 pieces of mail each day, complained he and fellow workers "were told to sign a paper saying that we had been briefed on anthrax" even though no such briefing occurred.
"We were told that if we didn't sign it, we would have to go into the supervisors office to talk with her about anthrax for a half hour," he said. A half-hour session would mean starting work late and the source said supervisors told carriers they would get no overtime.
The carrier said he was warned to watch for suspicious packages but had not been properly informed about what signs to watch for as he makes his route.
One regulation already in place that may help protect postal workers is that carriers are not allowed to accept stamped mail weighing more than 1 pound. Those packages must be deposited at a postal station where they receive a time stamp and identification.
Postal inspectors have cautioned citizens to watch for signs mail may have been tampered with and specifically said to look for packages from unknown sources, parcels with stains, strange odors or objects protruding from them, oddly shaped packages and packages for which there is no return address or for which the return address does not match the postmark.
News of the mail-borne threats in the United States has prompted international caution. Members of Israel's Knesset or parliament Tuesday received a three-page memo advising them how to handle incoming mail.
The warning instructed lawmakers, among other things, to watch for hard envelopes, packages that seem to contain another envelope, and packages that "smell like almonds." The same dispatch cautioned Knesset members to be wary of packages with too much postage, postage from various countries and packages with spelling mistakes or bad handwriting.
Investigators have a needle-in-a-haystack task of rooting out bacteria-bearing parcels in a U.S. postal system that shuttles some 8 billion pieces of mail per year. Lawrence Barcella, a Washington attorney who spent 16 years as a terrorist expert in the Justice Department, was quoted in the Palm Beach Post as saying investigators would work on several theories at once, assuming the injurious packages could have originated in post offices, mailrooms of office buildings or anywhere traces of the bacteria have been found.
He likened the investigative tactics to a gridiron strategy espoused by former football luminary Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb: "Go into the backfield and grab all the little guys until you find the one with the ball."
"You want to make sure that you can track it in any direction because you really don't know," Barcella said. "It's an elimination investigation which means you assume everything and nothing at the same time."
Tony Muljat, a California postal inspector who pursued the Unabomber for 11 years, noted Ted Kaczynski never mailed bomb packages from his home state of Montana.
"Unfortunately, with the number of pieces of mail that go through the (postal service), this stuff is going to fall through the cracks," said Muljat. "That plays right into the hands of the terrorists. They're aware of that."
Frank Young, a former assistant secretary once tasked with formulating terrorist responses for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the use of contaminated letters might suggest the senders' intent is to inflict fear more than physical harm.
"If your intent is to kill a lot of people, a contaminated letter infects one, perhaps a few people at most," said Young. "It's economic and psychological terrorism. If your intention is to scare a lot of people, maybe it is a way to go about it."
As of 1 p.m. Tuesday, the White House reportedly received more than 90,000 pieces of mail for the America's Fund for Afghan Children, but delivery of mail to White House has been suspended.
"Prior to Sept. 11 the White House has had a very vigorous system in place to review all mail that arrives here," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. "The White House continues to have a very vigorous system in place."
(Reported by Peggy Peck in Cleveland, Les Kjos in Miami and Kelly Hearn in Washington.)