Rethinking mail screening

Due to critical intelligence information two sophisticated explosive devices shipped via air cargo with explosives were intercepted before detonation. John Brennan, the deputy national security adviser, said on Sunday that there might be additional devices like the two discovered last Friday.

Both of these packages were addressed to former addresses of synagogues in the Chicago area. However, investigators are still attempting to determine whether the devices were meant to explode in transit or at their ultimate destination.

General guidance
We continue to advise Jewish institutions to carefully screen their mail and packages. Be suspicious of any item coming from an unknown sender, especially unknown senders from overseas. Both devices were sent from Yemen, but some analysts speculate that terrorists might send devices to other countries for subsequent rerouting.

If you receive a package from an unknown sender and suspect that it could be an explosive device or it may contain a hazardous substance, do not disturb it, do not try to open it. Leave the room, close the door and call 911. Other suggestions for mail screening are provided below.

Classic suspicious mail guidance
While the classic mail and package security guidance is still applicable, terrorists are highly intelligent and adaptable. Remember: Be suspicious of any item coming from an unknown sender, especially unknown senders from overseas. It also pays to be wary of envelopes and/or packages with the following markers, even if the package is sent from the U.S.:

  • No return address
  • Restrictive markings (e.g., confidential, personal)
  • Rigid or bulky
  • Strange odor
  • Lopsided or uneven
  • Excessive tape or string
  • Misspelled words/outdated names or titles
  • Addressed to title only (e..g., “Chief Executive Officer” rather than “John Doe, Chief Executive Officer”)
  • Incorrect title
  • Badly typed or written
  • Possibly mailed from a foreign country
  • Excessive postage

Recommended mail protocols 
We recommend that organizations consider and adopt formal mail screening protocols, appropriate for their organization, staff and building. Your protocols should consider that a variety of hazards can arrive by mail, including explosives and toxins.  Your protocols may include steps, such as:

  1. Larger organizations should continue to screen and x-ray their mail. The USPS best practices for mail center security can be found here. It contains an excellent chapter, “Protect Your Business from Package Bombs and Bomb Threats”.
  2. All organizations, large and small, need to examine all mail and packages, whether delivered via the post office, UPS, FedEx, other carrier or hand delivered.
  3. Whether or not your organization has a mail room, designate and train specific people to screen your organization’s mail. Make sure that they know what your screening protocols are and know what to do if they find anything suspicious.
  4. Screen your mail in a separate room. That way if you find anything suspicious, you can easily isolate it.
  5. If you believe that an envelope or package contains a hazardous substance (e.g., an unknown white powder) instruct your screener to avoid inhaling the particulates, wash his/her hands with soap and room temperature water and isolate him/her in an adjoining, designated area away from the substance and await instructions from the first responders (This will take some planning. You don’t want anyone walking past the other employees and possibly contaminating them).
  6. If you deem an item to be suspicious: 
    • Do not open it.
    • Do not shake it.
    • Do not examine or empty the contents.
    • Leave the room.
    • Close the door.
    • Alert others in the area.
    • Call 911.
    • Shut down your HVAC (heating, ventilation and cooling) systems, if possible.
    • Consider whether you want to vacate your premises.