Cablegate: Colombo Eac Reports Lessons Learned From White
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 COLOMBO 001414
DS FOR DS/IP/SPC/WMD, DS/IP/SA, DS/SPC/EAP, AND MED
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: AMED ASEC CE PTER
SUBJECT: COLOMBO EAC REPORTS LESSONS LEARNED FROM WHITE
REF: A. COLOMBO 01318
B. COLOMBO 01326
1. (SBU) Colombo EAC convened on 08/17/04 to discuss lessons
learned from an anthrax letter hoax that led to the closure
of the Mission 08/10-13. EAC members in attendance included
the Charge', RSO, ARSO, DATT, POL, ECON, PD, ADMIN, AID, and
RMO New Delhi. The EAC, chaired by the Charge', conducted a
critical review of the Mission's procedures and equipment
related to the white powder incident and identified several
areas of improvement. Recommendations were also made
regarding lessons learned. These recommendations have been
listed below for wider dissemination as appropriate.
2. (SBU) Summary of Incident - On the morning of Tuesday
08/10/04, Charge' OMS removed a letter previously opened by
the mailroom staff and addressed to the AMB, which spilled a
white powder substance on her desk. She immediately notified
the RSO, who evacuated the 3rd floor CAA and reacted two
members of the Embassy Chem/Bio team (ARSO and DATT). GSO
was contacted to shut down air conditioning on the 3rd floor.
OMS was instructed to disrobe and shower in the female
restroom/shower located adjacent to the EXEC office space.
OMS's clothes were double bagged and she was given a chem/bio
training suit for her ride home. The two-person Chem/Bio
team collected and secured three samples of the powder
according to DS procedures. The letter was briefly reviewed
to identify it as a threat letter, then double-bagged and
held as evidence. The OMS desk area was decontaminated
according to DS procedures, then the Chem/Bio team
decontaminated themselves in the same female restroom/shower
previously used by the OMS. Although the letter had first
been opened in the remote mail handling facility outside the
Chancery, the contents were not removed and the letter was
placed in the mail distribution system. An emergency core
EAC discussed the situation with DS/IP/SPC/WMD and decided to
evacuate the entire Chancery and send all employees home,
including those in the Consular Section, the American Center
and the International Broadcasting Bureau at Negombo. EXEC
suite and Mailroom were sealed with plastic sheets and duct
tape. RSO checked each third floor office to assure the
individual thermostat controls were turned off. Embassy
Health Officer made the determination to immediately place
the OMS, the RSO, and the Mailroom employees on Cipro due to
their direct exposure to the unknown substance. A
determination regarding antibiotics for the rest of the
Embassy community was deferred pending lab results. It was
then discovered the only local lab identified in the
Mission's EAP for anthrax testing had become inactive during
the past year. For the local lab to become fully operational
and complete the required testing would take four days, about
the same time required for a sample to be expressed mailed
and tested at CDC Atlanta. Attempts to locate other labs in
the region were met with negative results. On Friday,
08/13/04, CDC Atlanta reported the tests of the white powder
were negative, and the Mission opened for limited operations
that same day. End Summary.
3. (SBU) What We Did Right
- Post's Emergency Action Team reacted calmly,
professionally, and with great competence.
- DS and MED procedures were followed to the fullest extent
possible. The important lesson here is that the emergency
procedures were well documented and EAC members knew where to
- ARSO and DATT reacted quickly and with courage as the
Chem/Bio response team. They were familiar with the
equipment, worked well as a team, and followed procedures
expertly under difficult circumstances.
- The Embassy Health Officer responded promptly and provided
expert advice on health concerns, but also quickly brought
the appropriate administrative issues into play. He was
familiar with the medical emergency, lab procedures, and
relevant points of contact.
- The GSO was efficient in locating and delivering
containment/decontamination items whenever requested. In
emergencies, innovation is often the key to obtaining
necessary supplies quickly, and the GSO was extremely
effective in that regard.
- Mission employees responded calmly and facilitated
decision-making by following management instructions promptly
and without panic. Some officers were able to conduct work
from home, others continued meetings off site. One officer
had the presence of mind to bring a bundle of letterhead home
to continue official communications on his personal computer.
- Post's Emergency Action Plan worked. No plan is perfect,
but the advance preparation and attention to detail that goes
into an EAP makes responding to an actual emergency
- Headquarters support was excellent. DS/IP/SPC/WMD and MED
provided expert advice on a 24-hr basis. Coordination
between MED and CDC Atlanta was excellent. Special
recognition should go to CDC Atlanta for a prompt turnaround
of lab results.
4. (SBU) What We Could Have Done Better
- Mail Inspection Procedures. DS procedures for outside mail
inspection were in place, but it appears at the time of the
incident those procedures were not closely followed.
Internal inquiries by RSO and IPO determined that the
envelope in question had been cut open by the mailroom and
examined at one end, but the letter had not been removed or
the envelope shaken out. Human nature being what it is,
particularly in areas of redundant security functions such as
mail or vehicle inspection, the lesson to be learned here is
that it is important for supervisors to closely monitor and
when necessary, retrain subordinates to assure proper
security procedures are followed.
- Equipment Lapses. A post-incident review of the chem/bio
equipment revealed that some of the react suits had obviously
been used in training exercises and were showing signs of
wear and tear, particularly around the foot area. We also
found most of our chemical test kits to be missing. It is
unclear if the test kits had been used up as training devices
or never delivered. Our inspection also revealed poor
quality duct tape that failed to stick to the Tyvex suits,
and a shortage of basic cleanup items such as buckets,
sponges, bleach, brushes, towels/rags, and large plastic
garbage cans for stowing/securing items once they are used.
These items should be inventoried, pre-positioned, and
dispersed throughout a facility on all floors so that at
least some resources are accessible in the event one part of
a building is shut down.
- Training Deficiencies. RSO notes that the first time he or
the ARSO had seen the sample collection kits/procedures was
on the day of the emergency, despite having several chem/bio
courses under their collective belts. Although DS training
focus on decontamination is important, additional training in
evidence collection and use of the sample collection kits
would be useful.
- Chem/Bio Team Attrition. Colombo's incident occurred in
the middle of summer rotation. As a result, several of the
Chem/Bio Team members had just recently departed post and
replacements had yet to be identified. Fortunately, only two
responders were needed for this particular incident. A
larger scale event would have exploited our shortage of
- Periodic Lab Checks. There is only one lab in Sri Lanka
qualified to conduct lab tests for anthrax. Once our
incident occurred, we found that the lab had become inactive
during the past year. No other labs were available in the
region. Posts should follow up with local labs periodically
to assure that they remain viable resources. One EAP
recommendation in planning is to identify alternative labs in
the region and obtain the necessary permits/authorizations
for shipping samples ahead of time.
- Change of Clothes. All employees should consider having an
alternative change of clothes at the office. In the case of
the OMS who opened the letter thus potentially contaminating
her clothes, we were able to locate an old training chem/bio
suit for her to wear home. GSO is in the process of ordering
inexpensive paper jumpsuits for all embassy personnel. These
clothing items should be dispersed throughout the facility in
the event one section becomes contaminated or is shut down.
- MSG React. In retrospect, we could have reacted the
Marines for this event. They all have basic chem/bio
training and would have been useful in securing the various
floors and directing employees away from the hazardous area.
However, consideration should be given in certain situations
to keeping the Marines off the compound to preserve their
health and safety for later deployment as necessary.
- Air System Shut Down. The air system in Colombo's Chancery
is controlled in each individual office by a thermostat
switch. In some instances, an office suite may have several
thermostats, one for each room. This setup had advantages
and disadvantages for us in that we were able to keep air
running in vital areas such as the IPC with a reasonable
degree of confidence that those units were separate from the
contaminated area. The disadvantage was that once the EXEC
suites were sealed, we were not completely confident all
thermostats inside the suites had been shut down. It is
important for response teams to have a basic knowledge of a
facility's air systems.
- Evacuation. Colombo's incident occurred at a time when
many employees were just beginning to arrive to their
offices. RSO's decision to evacuate the third floor was
prompt, but instruction should have been given to the MSG to
prevent additional employees from entering the building,
particularly since our primary entrance led employees past
the potentially contaminated mailroom. In the process of
evacuation, we also failed to effectively employ the floor
warden system to check that the offices had in fact been
- EAP Plans for Other USG Facilities. The International
Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) site in Negombo is a two-hour drive
north from Colombo. Had a white powder incident occurred at
that location, an Embassy Chem/Bio team response with
equipment would have been at least three hours away.
Individual react plans with basic equipment should be in
place for remote sites, including IBB and the American
- Evidence Collection. While the primary function of our
Chem/Bio Team was not to conduct a full investigation at the
time of their response, in retrospect we realized the team
should have taken a bit more time to review the threat letter
before securing and sealing it. Obviously, it is not
possible to use a camera to photograph the evidence since the
camera itself would become contaminated in the process, but
we did conclude that one of the Chem/Bio Team members could
have used the OMS telephone to describe the letter in greater
detail and comment on the envelope markings. This would have
helped us evaluate when exactly the letter was received in
the mailroom, allowing a better estimate of what other mail
may have been contaminated. Making note of the specific
return address would have also permitted the RSO to initiate
an investigation sooner.
- Loose Lips Sink Ships. Within minutes of an RSO email
announcement advising employees of the white powder incident,
the information reached the local press with details that
could only have come from within the Embassy. This placed
our employees at increased risk by increasing the potential
for another attack by a copy-cat. An EAC should take into
consideration the political/security repercussions of
information leaks surrounding a security incident and devise
an appropriate strategy through its Public Diplomacy Office.
5. (SBU) What We Are Doing Now
- Mail Inspection Procedures. The EAC approved that the
plastic "gloves box" would be used to open all local mail
with postage stamps, all mail with hand-written address, all
mail with a hand-written return address, and all mail with a
typed return address. The only local mail not opened in the
"gloves box" would be local mail franked by a postage meter
and having a recognized pre-printed corporate return address.
This mail would be opened in the separate mail opening room,
but not in the "gloves box." In addition, all inspected
letters would be removed and stapled to their respective
- Mail Inspection Room. The EAC agreed that the work
environment in the mail inspection room could be improved, so
physical enhancements will be added to make a better
- Update Chem/Bio Team. Post has begun immediate
identification and training of replacement Chem/Bio Response
- Replenish Chem/Bio Supplies. Post has conducted a
comprehensive review of supply needs and replacement orders
will be made. New Tyvex suits requested in Ref A have
already been received from the Department and are much
appreciated. Additional requests may be forthcoming.
- Investigate the Letter. An investigation of the threat
letter is underway (Ref B).
- Disperse Supplies. Mission's Chem/Bio Incident supplies
will be dispersed throughout its various facilities to avoid
the risk of losing them in a single catastrophic event.
Supplies to be dispersed include written
procedures/guidelines, react gear, cleanup materials, and
- Update Contacts. Post has begun to review and update all
appropriate emergency points of contact.
- Containment/Decontamination Supplies - RSO and GSO have
begun to inventory, resupply, and disperse necessary
containment and decontamination materials.
- Research Work From Home Options - In an effort to
facilitate employees working from home in times of
emergencies, IPC will research options for transferring
Departmental email addresses to home computers, allowing
employees to conduct unclassified business with the
Department from home.
6. (U) Colombo POC for EAP issues is RSO Alex Moore