The international headquarters of B’nai B’rith was disrupted Thursday when employees discovered a leaking package that police believed could have contained a deadly biological agent.
B’nai B’rith officials also said a threatening letter was in the package. But they said they knew none of its details, and police would not characterize its contents.
Police cordoned off a several-block area in downtown Washington after reports initially circulated that the gel-like substance oozing out of the package could have contained anthrax, a deadly bacterium.
Thursday night, about eight hours after the incident had begun, the FBI said the substance was not harmful.
“It is not life-threatening,” said FBI Agent Thomas Pickard. “But we still have not determined what it is.”
Nonetheless, about 100 employees of the B’nai B’rith were confined to their building for about eight hours until health authorities had definitive lab results. The substance, described by police as a red gel with a foul odor, was taken by the FBI for testing at the Naval Medical Research Institute in nearby Bethesda, Md.
Police said the leaking package was discovered just before noon and carried outside because of its odor and suspicious nature. Police, firefighters and the joint city-federal anti-terrorism task force were called to investigate.
Inside the package, police said they found what looked like a small Petri dish. Some law-enforcement officials said the dish had a label that indicated it might contain anthrax or another biological agent that might cause Bubonic plague.
Firefighters in protective clothing retrieved the substance and sealed it in an airtight container. Later, at least 14 people were sprayed with a decontamination solution of water and bleach as a precaution.
During the incident, only one person, a B’nai B’rith employee who had complained of dizziness, was taken to a hospital, officials said.
Harvey Berk, a spokesman for B’nai B’rith, a Jewish service organization, said the suspicious package was discovered in the mailroom, which had just reopened after the Passover holidays. He said the B’nai B’rith headquarters had been closed on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Klutznick National Jewish Museum, which is in the headquarters, had planned to hold a Thursday night program for Peter Malkin, who wrote a book on his capture of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal who was executed 35 years ago.
The B’nai B’rith headquarters routinely screens its mail carefully and has instituted other security measures since Hanafi Muslims seized the headquarters and two other buildings 20 years ago, Berk said.
In that siege, a radio reporter was killed at City Hall in what the gunmen said was a takeover in retaliation for the murder of seven members of the sect in 1973.
Map of B’nai B’rith international headquarters neighborhood