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Suspicious Powders 101

FBI Casework:
Suspicious Powders 101

Amerithrax Investigation: Opening the Leahy Letter, Photo 3 of 4


Scenario: A suspicious white powder is discovered in a letter and is reported to the FBI.

Did you ever wonder...what happens next?

1. Specially trained FBI agents, local hazardous materials (hazmat) teams, and other first responders are dispatched to the scene. One of the onsite agents immediately contacts FBI Headquarters Counterterrorism, which assembles a multi-agency team for threat assessment/response. The Headquarters team helps first responders address safety concerns, handle evidence properly, and develop an investigative plan.

2. The onsite team tests the material for radiation, volatile chemicals, pH and other characteristics; wraps it in an airtight overpack and sends it to the nearest CDC-certified lab for more testing.

  • If the field screen is negative, the team leaves the area.
  • If it’s positive, 1) the local area is shut down and tested by hazmat teams in protective suits. 2) People who had any contact with the powder are identified, decontaminated, and possibly examined at a hospital as a precaution.

3. If a threat letter has been found, the CDC-certified lab makes sure it’s not contaminated, then sends it to the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, to test for clues like fingerprints, hair samples, andif the postage stamp/envelope has been lickedDNA. The letter’s language and writing, which could provide important clues, are analyzed by the FBI Behavioral Science Unit.

4. Once lab tests determine definitively whether the powder is hazardous or not, the FBI works with the CDC and state and local health departments to advise the public whether the threat is real or a hoax.

5. The evidence of the case is presented to the U.S. Attorney to determine whether it should be prosecuted: If not, the case is closed. If so, a full investigation is begun. Even cases involving harmless substances, can, of course, be prosecuted because it’s a violation of federal law even to threaten the use of a Weapon of Mass Destructionincluding anthrax and other biological agents. The threat letters and substances collected during investigations are securely maintained as case evidence.

Just how often does this happen? The number of reports of suspicious powders increased dramatically after the October 2001 anthrax mailings that resulted in five deaths. In 2002, the Bureau responded to some 2,500 reports of the use or threatened use of anthrax or other biological agents. Full investigations were opened in 305 of them.