Lawmakers upset over DHS employee's handling of dead fish, white powder
A Homeland Security intelligence official was responsible for bringing a package containing a dead fish and white powder to department offices in downtown Washington Friday, an apparent violation of security protocols that set off a significant security incident, according to sources familiar with the matter.
The incident also has caught the attention of key lawmakers, who want a full report on what happened.
The package was sent Thursday to the home of Maureen McCarthy, a senior adviser for weapons of mass destruction intelligence programs at the Homeland Security Department, according to these sources, who spoke on the condition they not be identified.
Sources said McCarthy brought the package in her car Friday to her office on Vermont Ave., NW and parked her vehicle under a ventilation shaft in the garage.
But one source who defended the move said McCarthy initially placed the dead fish in a sealed bag and put it in her freezer in an effort to secure it, not noticing any white powder in the package. The source added that she was advised to bring it to the office by department security.
News accounts of the incident incorrectly reported that the suspicious package was mailed to an employee in the department's downtown offices.
Sources questioned the rationale for transporting the package and how McCarthy could make such a procedural mistake, given the potential implications of the situation and her position at the agency.
"The concern is, this woman heads weapons of mass destruction and she will put this package in her car and park under a ventilation shaft," said one source.
McCarthy's office did not return calls seeking comment and a department spokesman directed further questions to the FBI's Washington, D.C., field office -- which also did not return calls.
On Friday, an FBI spokeswoman confirmed the presence of the package with the dead fish and white powder, which prompted a brief evacuation and calls to the FBI to secure the building.
She also said the package was removed from the garage by a response team to a lab for testing, which is standard procedure. But because the FBI did not return calls, it is unclear whether the white powder has yet been identified.
McCarthy, a holdover from the Bush administration, is one of a number of officials who agency insiders say remains at the agency in positions created for them.
Sources criticized McCarthy for interacting with staff and entering a sensitive compartmented information facility -- an enclosed area within the offices used to process classified level information -- after she was exposed to the materials in the package.
They noted she effectively created a possible additional level of exposure for staff.
Sources also said McCarthy failed to advise the department about the package, choosing instead to alert the building's private security service after she arrived with the package Friday morning.
But one source questioned those pinning blame exclusively on McCarthy. This source said that after McCarthy received the package at her home, she called department security. She asked what she should do and was told to bring the package into her office, the source recounted.
"The word stupid doesn't adequately describe the situation," the source said. "The challenge you've got here is that you've got some moron at security saying bring it in."
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are expressing concern even as they continue to learn more about the incident. "We don't have all the facts yet, and I have asked the Department of Homeland Security for a full report," said Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.
"However, I am troubled any time potential threats are sent through the mail to federal employees," he added. "It is critical that the department has sufficient procedures in place for responding to this type of incident and that it trains its employees to follow them."
One source said the package had a return address from Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle, a major scientific research and development organization. A Battelle spokeswoman said the FBI has contacted the organization in response to the incident.
"We are working with authorities on their investigation," the spokeswoman said. "It's our understanding that it hasn't been determined where that box had been sent from."
A Homeland Security spokesman would not comment Monday on whether McCarthy called department security about the package. But he noted that, in general, Homeland Security employees should contact their local authorities if they receive a suspicious package at their homes.
Otherwise, employees should contact their immediate supervisor, the security director of the building where they work or the National Operations Center at department headquarters, he said.