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Ricin-Laced Letters Sent to Mayor Bloomberg and Gun Control Advocacy Group

May 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
New York Police confirmed that letters sent to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his gun control advocacy group were found to contain trace levels of poison on them. Jeffrey Brown talks to Reuters' Jeff Mason about the investigation and for more on a similar letter sent to the White House flagged by Secret Service.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The word came from the Secret Service today another suspicious letter has been intercepted at the White House mail screening facility. It’s undergoing testing. The letter is similar to two others sent from Louisiana to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and to his group advocating gun control. Those have tested positive initially for ricin.

New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly discussed the situation today.

POLICE COMMISSIONER RAY KELLY, New York City: I believe that there are three letters. The letters, I also believe are the same. They are not — they are addressed on the front of the envelope, but not in the letter itself.

In the letter, it says “you” and then it starts off with the narrative. So, I don’t want to republish the letters. That would be doing the bidding of the individual who sent this letter. But the letter in essence complains about gun control and says that, anyone who comes for my guns will be shot in the face.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for the latest on the investigation, we turn to Jeff Mason. He covers the White House for Reuters.

Jeff, welcome.

JEFF MASON, Reuters: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: A lot is not known at this point, but what can we say about the new letters, starting with where they came from?

JEFF MASON, Reuters: Well, the Secret Service is actually not saying where they came from.

But they did say that they looked out for letters after these ones that were sent to Mayor Bloomberg, and intercepted this particular letter at that mail service facility. So, they were ready for it. They didn’t open it, but when they saw that it had similar aspects to the ones that were sent to Bloomberg and to his group, they stopped it. They grabbed it. And they turned it over to the FBI.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, as far as we know, when they say similar, that is in terms of what, language?

JEFF MASON: Probably in terms of postage and signs from the envelope and from where it came. They said that it was not opened at that facility, which is different from what happened to those letters that were sent to Bloomberg, where there may have been some exposure.

JEFFREY BROWN: In terms of the letters to Mayor Bloomberg, we heard Police Chief Kelly talk about a specific tie to guns.

JEFF MASON: Correct.

And the president has, obviously, been out in front on gun control as well. Although not everything he has wanted on gun control has happened, he’s been very, very vocal in favor of stricter gun control measures, as has the mayor of New York.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, how does this work, this facility? Where is it? How much — who is looking for things?

JEFF MASON: Well, there is a lot of mail that goes to the president every year. More than a million of packages and letters come in through a facility in Washington, D.C.

So, there are people who look through that mail or divide it and make sure it goes to the right place every day. And they have a screening process. And, in this case, as I said before, the Secret Service was watching out for something after this news broke about the mail in New York.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is deliberately away from the White House, right? There’s a history here.

JEFF MASON: It is indeed. And it’s important to note that this letter never made it to the president, just like the previous time when this happened several weeks ago. The letter never made it as far as the White House itself or to the president.

There is a reason why there is a screening facility, and this is one of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: The — what can we say about ricin itself? Remind us a little bit about what it is, how it works.

JEFF MASON: Sure. It’s very dangerous. It can be lethal within 36 to 72 hours.

It comes naturally — or appears naturally in the castor bean and needs to be — there needs to be a deliberative action to make it into poison or into a biological weapon. So that would have had to have been done in this particular case.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how lethal? How much does it take?

JEFF MASON: Not much. It can be really just the amount of a pin point to be lethal and to be lethal very quickly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, last — when we were referring to the other letter that came, was sent to the president, that was only last month.

JEFF MASON: Right. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: In that case, somebody was arrested.

JEFF MASON: Somebody was arrested from Mississippi.

And in this case, the letters to New York were from — or to Bloomberg were from Louisiana. They will certainly be looking to find who sent these.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, is there any — I guess one could think there might be a copycat situation going on here.

JEFF MASON: Could be a copycat situation. I spoke to the Secret Service today and they said it’s too early soon to say whether there is a connection between those letters and the letter that was found here, but it’s certainly something they will looking at closely.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was also this month a man charged with sending a ricin-laced letter to a federal judge in Washington State. Right?

JEFF MASON: Right. So it is happening.

Also important to notice, though, or to note that authorities do say often when letter comes that say they have anthrax or ricin in them, frequently, it ends up being baking soda or something that is harmless. But that doesn’t mean it’s not something to be taken very, very seriously.

And in the case of the letter that were sent to Bloomberg, they said that there was a substance within them that had sort of a blue or orangish hue and that’s what led them to be suspicious.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, do we know what happens next or when we learn more?

JEFF MASON: Yes, we don’t know when we will learn more. We do know, however, that the FBI and the Secret Service, through the FBI joint terrorism task force, is investigating. So they will be looking into this very closely, and hopefully giving us details once they have them.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jeff Mason of Reuters, thanks so much.

JEFF MASON: My pleasure.