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Postal Service weighs new needs in bioterror fallout

The Postal Service has already received inquiries from congressional committees about what may be needed to defend the nation from mailed anthrax, but the post office has not yet decided on the best approach, a senior postal official said Tuesday.

"We've had a lot of calls from the committees asking us what we need, and we are in the process of evaluating that--talking with Homeland Security people and looking at what kinds of technology is available," said Deborah Willhite, senior vice president for government relations and public policy at the Postal Service. "We're trying to figure out what would be the best use of technology to provide another level of security for the mail without being invasive--and whether that technology exists."

Willhite noted inconsistencies in public information about dealing with anthrax.

"You can watch television and hear very well-informed experts who believe that radiation will kill anthrax, yet you can watch the same channel 30 minutes later and hear just as many PhD's say it will not," she said. "We are evaluating what the various answers might be, and what the value-added would be to the American citizen."

Willhite said that the Postal Service is keeping its options open about requesting additional funding from Congress rather than paying for security upgrades out of its existing budget--a budget that has been especially squeezed this year because of operational shortfalls.

"There's been no decision yet on how to pay for it," Willhite said.

She added: "We've been very appreciative of the offers we've already gotten from the Hill and from various other government departments that are very concerned. They understand that the mail is a fundamental part of the nation's infrastructure."

Willhite and groups representing mailers--who despite some policy differences have worked together to promote postal-reform legislation--are aware that the growing list of war-related legislation items will make it more difficult to pass postal reform.

But they argue that the anthrax scare actually spotlights the need for fundamental reforms, such as giving the Postal Service more freedom to set prices and try different approaches to collecting and delivering the mail.

"If anything, I think that the recent scares have drawn more attention to the need for the Postal Service to have some flexibility to respond to unusual costs like this," said Neal Denton, executive director of the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers.

"Mailing is a $900 billion industry employing 9 million workers and representing 8 percent of GNP," said Bruce Heiman, a lawyer and lobbyist who represents the mail-technology company Pitney Bowes. "Certainly the mail needs to keep moving. The anthrax scare emphasizes the need for postal reform, to ensure that mail remains a competitive, affordable universal communications medium in the 21st century."