Package Investigation Puts Spotlight On Postal Service Screening
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Ten suspicious packages have been intercepted so far. The packages contained what appeared to be explosive devices and were sent to prominent Democrats and critics of President Trump. The FBI is saying it can't rule out that there may be more suspicious packages moving through the mail now. This story has put the U.S. Postal Service in the spotlight.
Joining us to talk about that is NPR's Miles Parks. He's been looking into postal service policies. Welcome to the studio, Miles.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi there.
CORNISH: We don't know anything yet about who delivered these packages. What's known so far about how they were delivered?
PARKS: Right. So the FBI and the federal investigation arm for the Postal Service both declined to comment when I asked that exact question earlier today. But we can sort of piece it together based on what we know about where the packages were actually intercepted. At this point, we know that at least seven of the 10 packages were handled by the Postal Service. The packages addressed for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, for instance, were flagged in mail screening facilities by the Secret Service, and two of the packages addressed to Joe Biden were also found in postal facilities in Delaware. Obviously that's important because the USPS has screening procedures specifically in place to try to catch incidents and dangerous items like this.
CORNISH: When it comes to mail entering the U.S. postal system, what are those screening procedures?
PARKS: So it's really different based on a number of different factors - you know, the size of the package for instance. But maybe most importantly is who that package is going to. If you want to send mail to the White House or to Capitol Hill or another major federal building, for instance, it's automatically going to go to a separate offsite screening facility to check for suspicious-looking items.
So these suspicious items that we're talking about appear to have been sent using excessive stamps, which is something experts say is one of the first kind of red-flag items to look for during the screening process. At the end of the day, though, the Postal Service does admit that they - that because of the crazy volume that they deal with, they can't screen every single item that enters the system. So they have a system of best practices that they ask companies and even private citizens to use when going through their own mail.
CORNISH: The reports are that these appear to be homemade pipe bombs. It's not clear what kind of damage they could have caused. Can you give us some context. Like, how, I guess, random is this? Like, how often are explosives mailed?
PARKS: Yeah, it's maybe not as rare as one would expect. They - the U.S. Postal Service says it's about 16 - averages out to about 16 bombs per year, which might seem like a lot. But if you consider in the context of more than 150 billion pieces of mail get processed by the postal service every year, it kind of puts it into perspective, specifically when it comes to investigations.
They opened 19 investigations into hazardous material. That could be bombs. That could be chemical weapons that were being - trying to be delivered. It could even be hoax bombs or hoax chemical weapons as well. And they were able to gain 20 convictions in those investigations. But mostly when it comes to the investigations, we're talking about mail theft and mailing of narcotics - is a much higher percentage of what they're looking at.
CORNISH: Are there going to be any policy changes as a result?
PARKS: Not at this point. It doesn't seem that way. Obviously everyone involved in the Postal Service is going to be on much higher alert right now. I talked with somebody at the American Postal Workers Union who made an interesting point basically saying that we've been focused a lot about on the government officials and the media members in the case of CNN who seem to have been targeted by these packages, but there's also postal workers who were put in danger who are carrying these packages point A to point B who are also in danger in these situations. If you remember back to 2001 and the anthrax attacks, there were two postal workers who died back then. So there's no indication that any policies are going to be changed, but we're definitely seeing people on higher alert.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Miles Parks. Thanks so much.
PARKS: Thank you.
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