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House Tests Digital Mail System

The recent ricin scare on Capitol Hill exposed a potentially deadly flaw in measures to protect lawmakers and government employees from a biological terrorist attack through the mail. But it also highlighted a little-noted effort by the House Administration Committee to implement a digital mail program.

In the week before the Feb. 2 discovery of ricin in the Dirksen Senate Office building mailroom, the committee announced (to mostly yawns) that it was moving into Phase II of its pilot program, which proposes to make opening constituent mail by staff members a thing of the past.

"Since then, we've seen a lot interest in the program," Bryan Walsh, a spokesman for Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), chairman of the committee, told internetnews.com. "A number of members have approached the chairman about getting involved."

Following the October 2001 discovery of a letter containing anthrax spores delivered to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office, all mail sent to government offices is routed through Bridgeport, N.J., to be irradiated. The process, which delays mail delivery by up to a week or more, is designed to kill potential biological agents. Irradiation, however, doesn't work on ricin.

The digital mail program would stop all physical mail from reaching Capitol Hill.

Phase I began a year ago with 10 House offices agreeing to test the system developed by Pitney Bowes. Once the mail arrived in Bridgeport, it was irradiated and shipped to a Pitney Bowes office in Leesburg, Va., approximately 40 miles from Washington.

There, the mail was scanned and placed on disks, which were then shipped to Washington. The process knocked several days off the delivery time.

"We got a lot of positive response," Walsh said. "It was like using a PDF document, though, because you had to scroll down through letter after letter."

Walsh said several offices dropped the program. "It wasn't for them," he said. "It was a matter of style as I understand it, like some people simply not like reading news online."

Phase II of the program will eliminate the disk, with Pitney Bowes directly scanning mail into a server that is immediately available to Hill offices. The system makes each piece of mail a separate document and allows for sorting, keyword searches and the ability for field offices to access the mail.

"The whole value proposition is scanning mail directly at the point of entry," Pitney Bowes product manager Judy Eckert said. "The mail can go into directly into a workflow system, go to more than one recipient and you can associate business rules with it."

Walsh said "17 to 18 offices" are likely to participate in the second phase of the digital mail program, which has so far cost approximately $2 million. He estimated to implement the program throughout all House and Senate offices will cost taxpayers $5 million.

"Keep in mind, it cost $60 (million to) $70 million to clean up offices after the anthrax incident," Walsh said.

Phase II is expected to last for more than a year, but Walsh said there is no set time frame. "The chairman has always said he wants to keep the program on a voluntary and bipartisan basis," Walsh said.

The ultimate goal is to eliminate the familiar message currently found on most lawmakers' Web sites: "Due to prior anthrax contamination, safety procedures require all mail sent to my Washington Office to be irradiated. This procedure delays the delivery of mail by approximately two weeks."

As Walsh said, "Constituent mail is the lifeblood of congressional offices. I think more and more offices will embrace this system."