This week, explosive devices were sent to a number of high-profile individuals, including former President Barack Obama, former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, philanthropist George Soros, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, CNN, Rep. Maxine Waters, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Robert De Niro. While the package directed at Soros was reportedly hand-delivered, the other devices were caught during the standard mail-screening process.
Even in 2018, that mostly comes down to the hard work of humans, and the occasional dog and or mouse. I write this knowing full well that my inbox will soon be filled with stories of bomb-checking robots and AI, but still: The first line of defense is pretty much up to us mammals.
According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, coming across a mail bomb is incredibly rare, with an average instance of less than 1 in 10 billion pieces of mail. (That doesn’t include the latest slate of bombs, though.) Such rarity doesn’t mean defense can be any less vigilant, since it only takes one bomb to cause serious damage or death. Inspectors must be constantly on the look out for some of the common warning signs of mail bombs, including a sketchy shipper who buys too much insurance for what he says is in the box. According to the FBI, misspellings, lumpy packages, odd return addresses, excessive postage, or even protruding wires or oil stains can also be warning signs.
CNN, now experts in the field, say the package delivered to its New York office was “wrinkled and damaged,” had misspelled names, and “one corner of the package was covered in stamps,” which is undoubtedly why it caught the eye of mail screeners. The Department of Homeland Security has put out a 57-page manual listing the best practices of mail screening.
— Gio Benitez (@GioBenitez) October 24, 2018
At the USPS, mail screening falls under the purview of Postal Inspectors and, if things get hairy, the Dangerous Mail Investigations Program, which uses “multi-tiered field-screening to declare mail as non-hazardous.” This is particularly true for mail sent to “high-profile venues,” including government offices and large-scale events like the Olympics and Super Bowl. While Postal Inspectors are well trained, they have technology to help, too, including portable X-ray machines and a biological detection systems (BDS) that trigger early-warning mechanisms in the event of “dangerous biologicals.”
There is also a special team of Postal Inspectors trained as Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Specialists, who respond to situations and create protocols in the event BDS detects a dangerous substance, which hasn’t happened yet out of 7 million tests. Due to the vigilance of the humans at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the U.S. Mail continues to be one of the safest forms of communications in the world, although the latest slate of bombs may have affected their numbers.
To find out what happens after a bomb is found in the mail, check out this Motherboard story on how law enforcement tracks down the source of mail bombs and this Smithsonian story about how bomb-sniffing dogs are trained. They’re both fascinating.