WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., sought answers Tuesday from Postmaster General John Potter, postal unions, and postal workers about how the Postal Service moved to protect its workers and the public following the discovery of anthrax in the mails.
At an oversight hearing titled ?Terrorism Through the Mail: Protecting Postal Workers and the Public,? Lieberman questioned Potter about the timing of the Postal Service?s response upon learning that anthrax was being sent though the mail.
Both Potter and union representatives agreed postal officials “did about as much as it could do, as quickly as it could do it,” Lieberman said.
This new, insidious terrorist attack has been difficult to detect, and has emerged slowly over a period of weeks, striking so far in Florida, New York, New Jersey, Virginia and over a dozen places in Washington. Two Washington D.C. postal workers and a newspaper editor in Florida have died, while a dozen others have been diagnosed with either cutaneous or inhalation anthrax
?Our committee wants to find out whether adequate steps were taken to protect postal workers – and, for that matter, anyone who opens their mail – once it was known that the mails were being used to further terrorize the American people,? Lieberman said. ?We need to take stock of what we have learned from this experience and assess what needs to be done to properly protect those who work for the Postal Service and those who depend on its services.?
The first transmission of anthrax through the mail was confirmed Friday, October12, when an NBC employee was diagnosed with cutaneous anthrax after opening a letter addressed to anchor Tom Brokaw. Federal officials and the Postal Service apparently thought the risk of inhalation anthrax was negligible until two mail workers, now being treated in Virginia, were diagnosed with it over a week later.
?The question many are asking, admittedly, with 20/20 hindsight,? Lieberman said, ?is should someone have recognized what now seems like an obvious concern not only about those receiving envelopes with anthrax but about the safety of the men and women who work in the mail system that delivered them? Should health workers have been on the lookout for possible anthrax infection? Should environmental and worker testing have begun sooner than it did? Did the Centers for Disease Control and the Postal Service take too passive an approach toward postal workers and the public?
?It is particularly important,? Lieberman continued, ?that we end what has been called a ?multi-voiced disharmony? from government officials in recent weeks. Governor Ridge, as the lead government spokesman on these matter, and others in positions of authority need to tell the truth to the American people and if they don?t yet know the truth, then they need to tell us that as well. Otherwise, in this time of crisis, the federal government risks losing the credibility and trust it has gained from the American people in the first stages of the war against terrorism.
?The bottom line here is the Postal Service is a major component of this nation?s critical infrastructure and is one of the foundations of our quality of life,? Lieberman said. ?Businesses and individuals that depend on it comprise a significant portion of our Gross Domestic Product. It is too important to too many people to allow these problems or anxieties with the mail system to fester. We hope that we will move forward together to find a way to better protect America?s postal workers and the people of this country who depend on their work just about everyday of our lives.