House to Hire Private Eyes to Screen Mail

To ensure yet another level of security for the mail headed to Capitol Hill offices, one panel is initiating a pilot digital mail program that would engage a private company to open up and screen all mail headed for congressional offices.

The program could serve as a guardian angel or Big Brother depending on how its success is measured.

"Since the anthrax contamination, making the mail more reliable and safe has taken on a new urgency. This pilot program is part of examining our options for the best way to do that," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

Pressure to make sure the mail is untainted follows last year's anthrax attacks that shut the doors on Congress for three days and kept the Hart Senate Office Building closed for four months. Similar letters were sent elsewhere in the country, causing the deaths of five people.

The pilot program would divert mail on its way to Capitol Hill to a contractor who would screen and scan it into e-mail form before sending it along digitally. Hard copies would be left behind out of harm's way, though it would still be irradiated for anthrax spores in New Jersey as it is now, said committee spokesman Jim Forbes.

"We're looking at 50 offices and two committees to try this out," Forbes said.

But weeks of rumors and recent reports of the pilot program have already given rise to more questions than answers about the security and efficiency of such a system.

"I think we have to give them credit for thinking creatively, but it does raise some important issues that we would need to address, like confidentiality," said Tom Cohn, a spokesman for the Democratic staff at the House Budget Committee.

"Might it help expedite or facilitate the mail process to a certain degree? I don't know," he noted. "At least they're trying."

As it is, the mail is roughly two weeks behind due to the irradiation process that was put into place last November after the anthrax contamination. Some staffers on the Hill have expressed concern that sending the mail away for screening by private handlers might make the mail even later and clog the Hill’s already burdened e-mail system, and raises privacy concerns since most of members’ mail comes from constituents, many detailing personal issues.

“I think members will find two things wrong with it – one, it will take them one more step away from their constituents –  those who take the time to write – and two, it will probably mean a longer delay for the members to get their mail,” offered Larry Van Hoose, a spokesman for Arizona Republican Rep. J.D. Hayworth.

“It’s just a first-blush reaction, but it really sounds off the wall,” he added.

Forbes, who said almost two dozen vendors placed bids for the program in June, said all of the concerns have been considered and that his committee is assured that the e-mail transfer would not only be encrypted so that only members could read their own mail, but that the process would cut down the delay by at least a week.

“As long as those things are fleshed out and solutions are provided, this is definitely something our office could approve of,” said Brendan Benner, a spokesman for Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Penn. “Our main goal is to try and get responses and cases taken care of as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Forbes said the committee will begin to choose the offices that will be participating in the next two weeks.