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BIA employees may have received cross-contaminated letters in mailing

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. ? BIA Regional Director Rob Baracker sent Albuquerque BIA employees home Oct. 31 after receiving information they may have received letters that possibly were cross-contaminated after going through the Washington, D.C., Brentwood mail facility.

The letters were mailed Oct. 16, three days before the facility was shut down because of anthrax contamination that led to the deaths of two postal workers. What concerned Baracker and other BIA officials was that these letters were sent to the homes of 11,000 BIA employees throughout Indian country.

Two BIA employees have been tested for anthrax after exhibiting suspicious symptoms and several others planned on being tested.

Indian Country Today received a copy of the e-mail sent to BIA employees across the country warning of the possibility of anthrax cross-contamination. The e-mail is a follow up to questions regarding the mass mailing on the Cobell lawsuit sent to bureau employees' homes.

The e-mail reads:

"Deputy Commissioner

"This is a follow-up on the question you asked me earlier in the day.

"Your question -- did the Cobell mass mailing that went to all BIA employees go through the Washington DC Brentwood mail facilities?

"I talked with ---- who is responsible for the Interior mail function.

"Brentwood was not closed down until Oct. 19; therefore, the Cobell mass bulk mailing to the employees did go through the Brentwood mail facilities.

"I received my Cobell letter at home, and I opened the letter myself without gloves or mask.

"From 1 to 6 days or even up to 12 days after exposure takes place Anthrax symptoms take place.

"If someone is concerned about being exposed to Anthrax, they need to immediately go to their doctor.

"Cipro or Doxycycline is the first-choice treatment. A high-dose of penicillin can be used for skin anthrax, and a variety of other drugs are available for inhaled anthrax.

"Some symptoms of Anthrax are:

Nausea

Loss of appetite

Vomiting, vomiting of blood

Fever

Abdominal pain

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Severe diarrhea

"All first class mail to Washington, D.C., goes to Lima, Ohio, first. At Lima a company irradiates all first class mail. This does not include books or packages. The mail is slower coming to Washington. This is going to effect time sensitive mail like appeals, FOIA etc.

"The US Post Office has already ordered machines that will have to be developed and built from scratch to irradiate all mail. These machines will not be available from 12 to 18 months and will cost from $5 to 7 million each. The machine will be in Washington DC. Irradiate kill ALL bio-agents. Irradiation is a highly intense electron beam. The food and medical industry uses irradiation.

"This irradiation process does not include UPS or FedEx type mailings. These companies must screen their mail packages.

"At the US Post Office Headquarter mail meeting (Oct.26), they told us that 264 mail facilities are being decontaminated. That the Brentwood mail station they contaminated 300 mail vehicles.

"The Post Office Inspection Service has 1,400 investigators working 7 day a week on the Anthrax problem. The FBI has 6,000 investigators working on it.

"If the mail staff feels better by using gloves and mask by all means use them. If they get a suspicious letter, they need to call the local police. Put the item in a plastic bag. DO NOT open it. Get to know your local Post Office manager better.

"(Note: I came away from last Friday's meeting with a sense of pride in how hard thousands of our people are working on the Anthrax problem. They are not leaving one stone unturned to get to the source of the problem and correcting the problem. They are busting their tails to solve this evil problem. There are NO 100% guarantees)?We need to be Always Alert and be Vigilant."

Although all BIA regional offices have received the e-mail, the Albuquerque office moved on the possibility of anthrax exposure almost immediately, when Baracker told his employees to go home and burn the letters and advised those who thought they needed to seek testing for possible anthrax exposure to do so.

Asked if he had received the same e-mail as Indian Country Today, Baracker admitted that e-mail alerted him, but did not elaborate on its contents.

"We received a copy of an e-mail from a Central Office employee advising that mail as a result of the recent mass mailing to all BIA employees directed by the Cobell litigation, an anti reprisal letter that was sent to all BIA employees', nationwide, homes that had gone through the Washington, D.C. Brentwood mail facility and that we should be advised," Baracker said.

"I guess it was an unofficial letter -- it was an e-mail that we got haphazardly, that we got from another regional office. As a result of the letter, my deputy held all-hands staff meetings to advise them of the possibility of possible exposure to anthrax."

Baracker said he didn't know why the letters were sent to BIA employees' homes instead of their offices. "I have no idea why. Other than the directive from the special master on the Cobell litigation was that -- and it was very specific -- that each and every employee of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was to be advised of this anti-reprisal in the event that any of these folks talked to him. The instruction was to make sure every bureau employee got it, so I guess the decision was made to send it to their home addresses."

Baracker said the decision to close the regional office came from requests from employees after copies of the e-mail circulated throughout the offices.

"I closed it down," Baracker said. "What happened was that I was out of the office that morning (Oct. 30) and there were a number of requests from a number of folks here in offices in the region asking to go home to destroy that letter. Even as of (Oct. 31), even though the letter was postmarked Oct.16th, the letter was still being received by some of the outer locations. They wanted to go home and destroy the letter because that was basically what we told them to do. Destroy the letter, burn it."

Bureau employees in Albuquerque said they were grateful for the fast action of the regional director, but government officials were displeased with Baracker's order to burn the Cobell mass mailing and seek medical treatment.

"I'm right now in the process of preparing a declaration because I have violated directives and court orders about destroying litigation records," Baracker said. "I have no problem with doing that. You have to do what is right. The threat was at the employees' homes where these letters went to. We took it seriously and we acted."

Baracker also is in meetings with Indian Health Service personnel to see where to go next.

"Had it not been for an innocuous e-mail we probably wouldn't have even known anything about it," he said.

Whether tests will be run on the Albuquerque BIA regional offices is still up in the air. Meetings with IHS officials will determine what steps if any will be taken next.

"We don't know what to do," Baracker said. "This is not our game."