J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — In a capital city on edge, letters sent to President Barack Obama and a Mississippi senator tested positive for poisonous ricin in preliminary checks, and authorities chased a stream of false alarms about seemingly suspicious packages and mail sent to senators in Washington and beyond.
Authorities still waited for definitive tests on the letters to Obama and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., which had raised concern Wednesday at a time when many people were jittery after the Boston bombings.
An FBI intelligence bulletin obtained by The Associated Press said those two letters were postmarked Memphis, Tenn. Both letters said: "To see a wrong and not expose it, is to become a silent partner to its continuance." Both were signed, "I am KC and I approve this message."
The letters were intercepted before reaching the White House or Senate. The FBI said Wednesday that more testing was underway. Preliminary field tests can often show false positives for ricin.
As authorities scurried to investigate three questionable packages discovered in Senate office buildings, reports of suspicious items also came in from at least three senators' offices in their home states.
Sen. Carl Levin said a staff member at his Saginaw, Mich., office would spend the night in a hospital as a precaution after discovering a suspicious letter. The staff member had no symptoms, Levin said in a statement. He expected to learn preliminary results of tests on the letter by Thursday.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said suspicious letters at his Phoenix office had been cleared with nothing dangerous found. A package at Sen. John Cornyn's Dallas-area office also was declared harmless, a fire department spokesman said.
All three packages in the Capitol complex turned out to be safe, Capitol police spokeswoman Makema Turner said late Wednesday. But a man was still being questioned after being stopped in connection with the packages, she said.
All the activity came as tensions were high in Washington and across the country following Monday's bombings at the Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured more than 170. The FBI said there was no indication of a connection between the letters and the bombing. The letters to Obama and Wicker were postmarked April 8, before the marathon.
Capitol Police swiftly ramped up security, and lawmakers and staff were cautioned away from some parts of the Hill complex. After hours of jangled nerves, officials signaled it was safe to move throughout the area and people settled back to normal, if watchful, activity.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said that police had a suspect in mind in the Wicker mailing, someone who "writes a lot of letters to members." She made the comment Tuesday as she emerged from a briefing by law enforcement on the Boston bombing. Authorities declined to comment on a possible suspect.
Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, said mail sent to the White House is screened at a remote site for the safety of the recipients and the general public. He declined to comment on the significance of the preliminary ricin result, referring questions to the FBI.
At a House hearing, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe noted there had been ricin alerts since the notorious 2001 anthrax mailings and procedures are in place to protect postal employees and help track down culprits.
"Over the course of years we've had some situations where there have been ricin scares," Donahoe said. "Until this date, there's never been any actually proved that have gone through the system."
After the hearing, Donahoe said he didn't know whether the latest letters had been proven to contain ricin. He also told reporters that people sometimes mail substances that mimic the poison. No postal workers have reported illness connected to the incident, he said. Ricin, derived from the castor plant, is at its deadliest when inhaled.
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