Homeland security officials questioned over ricin intelligence

Lawmakers raised concerns Wednesday about the failure of officials at the Terrorist Threat Integration Center to warn Congress and other government agencies about the potential threat of a bioterrorism attack using the toxin ricin.

During a House Homeland Security Committee hearing, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., questioned whether TTIC officials knew the White House was the target of a ricin attack last fall and failed to inform other government agencies and Congress before the deadly poison was found in a Senate building this week. Markey noted that TTIC was specifically created last year to integrate and share intelligence information across federal agencies.

"As the Senate office building remains closed for a second day due to ricin contamination, we have learned that three months ago the White House also was the target of a ricin attack," Markey said. "However, the information reportedly was not shared with congressional leaders until after the discovery of ricin in the Senate."

Law enforcement officials said this week that two letters contaminated with ricin were found last fall in Washington and South Carolina. One was addressed to the White House but was intercepted at a military mail sorting facility.

TTIC Director John Brennan testified at the hearing that he could not recall when he learned about the ricin attack on the White House. He said he would look into the matter and get back to the committee with an answer. Brennan said, however, that he did not think the hearing was the proper forum to discuss terrorist threats.

"Any type of discussion about the underlying reporting or information regarding that should be kept in appropriate channels," Brennan said.

Markey argued the hearing was a suitable forum because it has oversight of TTIC.

"We are the committee given responsibility to make sure the agency which we have created is working to protect the American public against attacks," Markey said. "If you had knowledge that there was a potential ricin attack on the White House and you did not give that information to the Congress or to other relevant high-priority targets of al Qaeda, then that is something that we have to talk about, and you have to tell us what is your decision-making process and who is on the list that receives this very important information."

Homeland Security Department Deputy Director James Loy also testified at the hearing. Loy said he asked the Secret Service Wednesday morning how the agency handled the White House ricin attack and was told agency officials filed reports on the attack inside the executive branch. Loy told the committee he would ask the Secret Service if information about the attack was also provided to Congress. He added that he believes TTIC failed to do its job if it did not provide information to Congress about the attack.

Markey said the Bush administration made "a very serious mistake" if it chose not to share information on the attack with Congress and federal agencies.

"We cannot hope to thwart terrorists who use the U.S. mail system and other means to threaten our homeland security without all the facts," Markey said. "It is, to me, unnecessary and, as the facts unfold, potentially appalling that innocent lives could be put at risk if they weren't given the fundamental information that there was already a ricin attack that had occurred in Washington, D.C."

Markey also questioned the process that TTIC follows when distributing information about potential threats, especially since Brennan could not recall how he handled information concerning the ricin attack on the White House.

"You can understand that two days after this attack unfolds the fact that you don't know the answer to that question as you sit here is something that in and of itself causes some concern for those of us who are in charge of overseeing the department," Markey told Brennan.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec