Questions lingering after bizarre mailing to Bnai Brith

The episode was over, but questions were just beginning as Jewish organizational officials were left to assess the motive behind the threat and the handling of the emergency situation.

The announcement by Clearfield, B'nai B'rith's executive vice president, at about 8:30 p.m. on April 24 ended an ordeal that began when a B'nai B'rith mail clerk discovered an envelope leaking a red gelatinous substance from a petri dish that the sender claimed was an agent of "chemical warfare."

The dish was labeled with a misspelling of anthrax, a highly toxic biological agent.

Hazardous material experts arrived at the downtown office building to remove the envelope, which also contained a suspicious and threatening anti-Semitic note, according to B'nai B'rith officials.

The incident, which is being investigated as domestic terrorism, spread beyond the headquarters of the international service organization. Chaos descended as reporters rushed to the scene and police cordoned off a five-block radius around the building, snarling evening rush-hour traffic and trapping people in adjacent office buildings, a restaurant and at least one hotel.

When tests at the Naval Medical Research Institute determined that the substance was not harmful, Clearfield announced that the quarantine was over.

But the questions continued.

Citing conversations with law enforcement personnel who had tended to the emergency and had expressed their own concerns about lack of training to deal with such a situation, B'nai B'rith officials complained that the nation's capital was not equipped to deal with such an incident.

"It is inexcusable for police and fire personnel in a city which is so vulnerable to terrorist incidents to not have the highest level of training and appropriate resources for dealing with situations as potentially deadly as this," Clearfield said.

He specifically cited the lack of proper suits and decontamination equipment needed to hose down some of the employees who were exposed to the potentially hazardous material.

He also expressed anger that the decontamination took place in the open, leaving two of his employees shown on national television being hosed down in their underwear.

B'nai B'rith has called for a federal investigation to determine if the police are prepared for such incidents.

Ironically, B'nai B'rith, which has been involved in anti-terrorism efforts abroad, also unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to include in last year's anti-terrorism bill a provision allowing military personnel to assist local law enforcement and FBI agents in the event of a chemical or biological incident.

"This incident needs to be a wake-up call for our government," Clearfield said.

Last week's threat to B'nai B'rith came to an institution with unusually tight security.

After the 1977 siege, when 12 Black Muslim extremists seized the B'nai B'rith building and two other buildings not affiliated with Jewish organizations, B'nai B'rith implemented strict security measures.

Of the 134 hostages held in the 1977 attack, 107 were held in the B'nai B'rith building. That siege ended peacefully after 39 hours.

Although the site of last week's incident was the same, the situations were very different.

"In 1977, we were in an immediate life-threatening situation, with people holding guns to our heads and hitting people with rifle butts and their fists," Clearfield said.

"This time we were at our desks, waiting and worrying."

Although Jewish hostages were not singled out during the 1977 raid, anti-Semitic epithets were hurled frequently at the group.

This time, police believe that the Jewish group was targeted.

The substance came in an envelope with a two-page typed letter that identified the sender as the "Counter Holocaust Lobbyists of Hillel," according to the FBI.

The letter was anti-Jewish and included non-specific threats, according to Clearfield, who saw the letter at a private FBI briefing.

Clearfield confirmed that the letter included a reference saying that the only "good Jew is an Orthodox Jew," but cautioned that this was "a single phrase among many."

The letter also included references to Nazis, the Holocaust and Hillel, the Jewish college organization, but did not mention B'nai B'rith specifically.

"It's a crazy letter," Clearfield said. "It didn't make any sense."

As the situation began to return to normal at the building that also houses the Washington offices of the Council of Jewish Federations, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, law enforcement officials began trying to identify the sender of the package.

At the same time, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service said it would pre-screen all mail addressed to Jewish community organizations in New York, according to the FBI.

Meanwhile, speculation about the source of the threat continued.

Initially, Clearfield said he would have "bet money" that the package was related to Passover.

The incident occurred duringPassover, which is associated with the blood libel myth, the ancient anti-Semitic allegation that Jews murder non-Jews, especially Christians, to obtain blood for holiday rituals.

"When I first heard that there was red liquid dripping from the package, I thought it was related to the blood libel," Clearfield said.

But with no reference in the letter to Passover, Clearfield dismissed his earlier conjecture.

Many in the building were thinking of Passover during the ordeal.

With the employees having gone without food since noon, police allowed B'nai B'rith volunteers to drop off gefilte fish, matzah, cream cheese and cookies for dinner.

After they left the building, many staffers said they were concerned during the episode, but did not believe they were in danger.

"Once I heard that the petri dish had been labeled, I thought that a terrorist would not be so silly to label the contents of his petri dish," said Leila Barcony, a project assistant at B'nai B'rith's Center for Jewish Identity.