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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Homeland Security

Mike Levine

Washington, DC

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Wave Of Suspicious Letters Hits D.C.

May 6, 2011 - 10:20 AM | by: Mike Levine

Authorities in the nation’s capital are telling counterparts across the country to be on the look-out for letters with al Qaeda-related wording and a suspicious white powder in them, after dozens of schools in Washington, D.C., began receiving such letters on Thursday.

As of Friday morning, the FBI reported that 39 letters, all originating from the Dallas, Tex., area, had made their way to Washington, and authorities were bracing for even more letters to surface throughout the day. Five of the letters were intercepted by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service before they could be delivered to their destinations in Washington, where many schools had to be evacuated Thursday and early Friday.

On Thursday, federal, state and local authorities issued a “bulletin” to hazardous materials units across the country, informing them of the latest developments.

The investigation is being led by the FBI in Dallas, but it has become a much broader investigation as similar scenarios have played out elsewhere in recent months. In the past year, schools in Washington and Texas have received similar letters containing references to al Qaeda and the FBI, but the sheer quantity of letters sent this time is unprecedented, authorities said.

Authorities do not believe the references to al Qaeda have any particular significance, saying they are likely just an attempt to get attention.

As of Friday morning, authorities had no specific leads or suspects. The addresses on the letters were printed, not handwritten, and each letter was addressed to a school, not a specific person, the FBI said in a statement Friday morning.

Though no hazardous substances have yet been found in the mailings, the head of the FBI’s Washington Field Office insisted they are still a serious matter and amount to a “serious criminal offense.”

During a press conference Thursday, James McJunkin, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI, expressed frustration that “lots of resources are rolled out” as a result of these mailings, which he said distract the FBI from “other serious events.”

His office reiterated that sentiment in a statement Friday morning, saying the letters are “tying up hundreds of hours of police and law enforcement resources.”

Local and federal hazardous material experts spent much of Thursday responding to each school location, assessing the level of risk, and ensuring the letters and substances were packaged safely for further analysis, the FBI said in its statement Friday.

“No illnesses or injuries have [yet] been reported,” the statement said.

The chief of police in Washington, Cathy Lanier, said Friday her department has a plan in place “to ensure the safety of all the kids” and employees at area schools, adding, “They feel pretty comfortable now with the way we have this set up.”

McJunkin said he didn’t know why schools are being targeted, but he said he’s confident those responsible will be found.

The letters and all other evidence collected will be sent to the FBI’s lab at Quantico, Va., for further analysis.

While the investigation is being led by the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, and the D.C. Fire Department, among others, are all involved.