Of the many changes supposed to have taken place after the 9/11 attacks, one of the most important was a big shift in the way government agencies communicate with one another. While great strides have been made along those lines, this week's scare over toxic ricin powder on Capitol Hill serves as a reminder that such communication between and among federal agencies charged with protecting the homeland still could stand some improvement.
Last fall, the Secret Service had intercepted two letters containing ricin that were mailed to the White House and the Transportation Department last fall. (Current speculation involves a person angry over new trucking regulations). But the service failed to notify Capitol Hill police right away, or even tell the president about it.
This lax approach is not the way to deal with a poison known to be toxic, and with no known antidote. Though no connections between the incidents have yet been made, as the investigation moves forward, no possible stone should be left unturned.
Al Qaeda has threatened to use ricin, and when it comes to fighting terrorism, assumptions can be dangerous. Both the culprit(s) of this most recent incident, as well as the 2001 anthrax attacks in Congress have yet to be found, a clear example of the difficulties involved when terrorists choose to use public means like the mail to transmit weapons.
The public response in Washington this time was nowhere near the level of fright following the anthrax mailings, most likely because people didn't readily associate this latest incident with Al Qaeda. The response was more immediate, too; Capitol offices were quickly closed, and individuals quickly treated. Senate staff made necessary adjustments.
The fact that a poison made its way into the Capitol teaches that even with multiple, and necessary, preventive steps (House and Senate offices are laden with decontamination equipment, sophisticated air filters, and the like), vigilance involves more than technology - it requires alertness, and an instinct to share information, even when a poison that doesn't cause mass casualties is involved.