Posted: Nov. 29, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

A powder raising an anthrax alarm was mailed last month to the Wilmington office of U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. in a scare that forced the staff to evacuate for more than three hours but otherwise did no harm.

An envelope containing the powder and a threatening letter was opened Oct. 23 by staff assistants, bringing the Wilmington police, the FBI and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control to the office.

The material was tested and turned out to be a detergent called digitonin, so the staff went back to work in the quarters on Market Street near Rodney Square, and the FBI took charge of the investigation, which is continuing.

"It was relatively minor, but we took it seriously," said Margaret Aitken, press secretary to Biden, a six-term Democrat who will chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the next congressional term.

The envelope did not have a return address, Aitken said, and she did not know what was written in the letter.

The incident first was reported in a recent edition of Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Capitol Hill. It coincided with a number of other bogus anthrax mailings to celebrities and leading Democrats.

A California man was arrested earlier this month on charges of sending baking soda, laundry detergent, scouring agents and other white powders over two months to such people as David Letterman of CBS's "Late Show," Jon Stewart of Comedy Central, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, according to Roll Call.

The envelope sent to Biden is not part of the California case, the newspaper said, but it is being investigated in conjunction with another anthrax hoax at the Harlem office of former President Bill Clinton on Oct. 27, four days after the incident involving Biden's staff.

Mail to congressional offices in Washington routinely has been irradiated since letters containing anthrax were sent to two senators in October 2001, about a month after the terrorist attacks on September 11. The letters were part of a wave of mailings that also went to media outlets and left five people dead from the bacteria, which can be fatal if ingested or inhaled.

Mail sent to members of Congress in their home states, however, is not subject to the same screening, although Biden's staff has arranged for irradiation for anything going to either of the senator's Delaware offices in Wilmington or Milford since the incident.

"It will unfortunately slow down our response a little bit," Aitken said.

The rest of the Delaware delegation -- Democratic Sen. Thomas R. Carper and Republican Rep. Michael N. Castle -- have not changed the procedures for mail coming into the state.

The threat is regarded as low with most constituent mail going to the Washington offices and with the safety precautions put in place by the U.S. Postal Service, according to Bill Ghent, the communications director for Carper, and Elizabeth B. Wenk, the deputy chief of staff for Castle.

Furthermore, almost all of the correspondence these days is anthrax-proof. "E-mail, phone, fax," Wenk said.