WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- Equipping the postal service to deal with anthrax threats could cost "several billion dollars," Postmaster General John Potter told a Senate panel Tuesday.
Chief Postal Inspector Kenneth Weaver told a House hearing the postal service is following up on more than 150 leads related to anthrax being sent through the mail.
The postmaster, who also testified before the House Tuesday, told both committees he would ask Congress for financial assistance; postage fee hikes would be considered only if other sources to pay for revamping the service failed, he said.
Some lawmakers questioned why some postal facilities, particularly in Hamilton Township, N.J. and the Brentwood facility in Washington, were not tested more aggressively as word of anthrax discoveries initially began to spread.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., asked why the Brentwood facility, where two government workers contracted inhalation anthrax that killed them, was not closed until five days after a letter sent to the office of Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was officially confirmed as tainted with anthrax.
"During that time, mail from (Brentwood) continued to contaminate government mailrooms," he said.
Potter, who assured the Senate panel the service's "long-term viability" is not at risk, said based on the advice of experts, he operated under the theory the sender's intent was to harm an individual. He said FBI officials, postal inspectors and health experts told him because the letters were secured by tape, there was no threat of unintentional exposure to postal facilities or mail handlers.
"Initially, we believe the intent was to affect the recipient and it wasn't until later on that we found the size of anthrax spores were 1 micron in size (with the ability) to penetrate paper," Potter said.
"They (said) there was a remote chance that as the envelopes transited our system, that they would have contaminated the system," he said. "Without a doubt in my mind, there was truly a good faith effort on the part of all. People just did not know that much about anthrax."
In a hearing before the House Government Reform Committee, Weaver said since Oct. 18, when the Postal Inspection Service and FBI offered a $1 million reward, more than 165 leads have been called in to investigators. The agencies are pursuing those leads, he said, adding anyone caught perpetrating an anthrax hoax could face years in prison.
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., committee chairman, said mail-borne anthrax proves the threat of biological weapons, and the United States cannot hesitate in its reaction.
"We should strike hard at any site that our intelligence shows is producing chemical, biological or nuclear material for terrorists or terrorist nations," Burton said. "We must not wait, even if the current anthrax attack is not from a foreign entity; our enemies abroad are watching and preparing."
Potter told senators the U.S. Postal Service eventually plans to sanitize all mail deposit,ed in publicly accessible receptacles, such as mailboxes, throughout the continental United States, Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico.
During the House hearing, Thomas Day, the USPS's vice president of engineering, said both X-ray and electron-beam systems will be used to sterilize mail. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has helped the postal service find the right sanitizing technology, Day told the House committee.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said low-tech safety precautions could prove as effective as the new technologies.
At one point in the Senate hearing, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich, pressed Potter to explain his consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Levin asked why, according to Potter's testimony, the CDC would have told Potter on Oct. 17 there was no need to test Brentwood postal employees because the Daschle letter had passed through that facility unopened.
"You've said the CDC advised you on the 17th that, because the Senate letter was sealed, no action was necessary at Brentwood," Levin said. "The day before however, in Boca Raton, there was anthrax found in a processing facility (and as) a precaution the CDC closed the post office while it was being cleaned."
Potter said he had been told anthrax spores often occur naturally. He also said he believed the anthrax in Boca Raton was found on the floor, which led him to think the spores could have arrived in the building on someone's shoe.
Potter said he ordered the Brentwood facility tested immediately after learning about the Daschle incident. On Oct. 18, a preliminary test was conducted by a Fairfax County, Va. hazardous materials team. That test mistakenly turned up negative.
"We've learned that the quick test never gives a false positive, but it does give a lot of false negatives," he said.
The Brentwood facility was not closed until Oct 21 when senior management learned an employee had been admitted to the hospital two days earlier with suspicious symptoms.
Despite early confusion surrounding the response to the infected letters, Potter said the USPS is meeting daily with its unions to get the most current information to its workers. Union representatives told the House committee they remain committed to working with the USPS to deal with the situation.
"We are not blaming anyone for the harm done to postal employees and the postal service, except those ... who intended to cause death or serious bodily harm by sending anthrax through the mail," said William Burrus, president-elect of the American Postal Workers Union, in prepared testimony. "(We) insist that postal facilities be made secure and that the mail be made safe through any necessary means."