This story has been updated with more information about the nature of the threats.
Employees at Agriculture Department facilities across the country have been sent home due to multiple anonymous threats made against the department’s facilities and personnel.
USDA received the threats Monday and closed six offices “as a precaution,” said Matt Herrick, a department spokesman.
“Yesterday, USDA received several anonymous messages that are concerning for the safety of USDA personnel and its facilities,” Herrick said. The department has closed offices at the following locations “until further notice:” Fort Collins, Colo.; Hamden, Conn.; Beltsville, Md.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Kearneysville and Leetown, W.Va.
USDA is working with federal and local law enforcement, including the FBI, to assess the credibility of the threats, Herrick said. The USDA components housed in the affected offices include the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Agricultural Research Service, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Forest Service, National Agricultural Library, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Office of the Inspector General and USDA Departmental Management.
Employees were notified of the threats in an email from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. “The safety and security of our employees is our number one priority at the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” Vilsack wrote in the email, a copy of which was obtained by Government Executive. “When issues arise that are cause for concern, USDA will do everything it can to heighten security and protect personnel.”
The department instructed the employees to stay away from their offices until further notice. Vilsack told employees to “remain aware” of their surroundings, and to report “suspicious activity” to on-site security or call 9-1-1.
“Until the facilities are cleared to reopen by law enforcement,” Herrick said, they have the option to either telework or take paid, administrative leave. The spokesman declined to elaborate on how many employees are impacted or whether any additional facilities could still be closed.
“USDA security professionals are working continuously to ensure the safety of USDA employees and our facilities,” Vilsack wrote in the email. “We will share further updates on the status of this situation as more information is available.”
Update, 2:15 p.m.: USDA has told Government Executive the threats were made directly to employees at each of the locations that closed. The threats were made via one email message sent to multiple employees. USDA, the FBI and other federal and local law enforcement are evaluating the message to determine its credibility.
At a White House briefing Tuesday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the Homeland Security Department was also involved in investigating the threats, but declined to give any further details.
“The Department of Agriculture is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security to ensure the safety of their offices and the personnel that work there,” he said.
He added: “When it comes to the safety and security of U.S. personnel, military or civilian, we take that quite seriously and we place the safety of those workers at a high priority.”
Update, 4:30 p.m.: Stan Painter, chairman of an American Federation of Government Employees council that represents FSIS employees, said he and other council leaders were scrambling to gather more details about the closures. Painter reached out to Bill Smith, the head of FSIS’ Office of Field Operations, but Smith told him only, “You know what we know.”