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web posted December 24, 2001

A pitch for smart postal stamps

In an effort to eliminate terrorist threats such as anthrax that are delivered by mail, the U.S. Postal Service is considering the implementation of "smart stamps" that would trace mail and identify senders.

Among the suggestions proposed by the Committee on Government Reform, which oversees the USPS, is one that would require postal customers to show identification before buying stamps, making it nearly impossible to send anonymous letters.

The anthrax-tainted letters that killed several people after the Sept. 11 attack cost the USPS $5 billion in equipment damage, clean-up efforts and lost revenues. Now the agency is scrambling to protect itself against future attacks.

"The Postal Service is facing an unprecedented threat," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-California), the ranking minority member of the committee. "Bioterrorists are poisoning innocent Americans with anthrax by taking advantage of the anonymity of the mail."

Waxman is proposing the implementation of a two-dimensional barcode "stamp" that would contain the sender's identity as well as the date, time and place the postage was paid. The technology is currently used by companies that provide Internet mailing services, such as Stamps.com.

He said the particulars of the proposal -– including costs and the effect on stamp machines -– still need to be hashed out.

A Postal Service spokesman refused to comment on the tracking proposal but allowed that the agency was "aggressively looking at virtually everything that's out there" to increase security. He added that mail-sorting technologies -– such as barcodes -- can be implemented unilaterally by the USPS without congressional approval.

The USPS responded to the anthrax attacks by irradiating mail, but Waxman and others say the method is insufficient. Because irradiation equipment is costly, it has only been dispatched to a few undisclosed postal service facilities. The bulk of the 680 million pieces of mail delivered each day by the USPS is not sanitized.

Irradiation, which consists of bombarding objects with high energy electrons that break up the bacteria's DNA and kill it is routinely used to sterilize food products such as meat.

But the process can also destroy the mail - earlier this month, 90 lbs. of envelopes and magazines burst into flames at a New Jersey postal facility when the material overheated. Irradiation also harms electronics, exposes film and weakens prescription drugs, said Maynard H. Benjamin, president of the Envelope Manufacturers Association, a trade group representing the makers of 93 percent of the envelopes manufactured and distributed in North America.

Benjamin, who attended closed-door meetings with the USPS and Waxman this month, has suggested the agency consider "fiber fingerprinting," which identifies correspondence by the unique characteristics possessed by each piece of paper.

But the ultimate goal of any technology adopted by the USPS should be to identify the people sending mail, he said.

"If you look at Federal Express or UPS, the reason there have been minimum successful threats to them is that everything they have is traceable and trackable," Benjamin said.

Privacy advocates say that traceable mail would stifle whistle-blowers and government critics. Furthermore, they argue, the system could backfire.

"You'll have the same fraudulent problems that you have with IDs and credit cards now," said Lauren Weinstein, the moderator of the Privacy Forum. "The bottom line is that the bad guys are going to find a away around it. What if they steal your stamps, and you get framed for something you didn't send?"

Weinstein said that proposal could further harm the precarious financial health of the USPS, by pushing more consumers to opt for e-mail over snail mail.

Pelosi abandons Condit

Representative Nancy Pelosi, who becomes House Minority Whip next month, had endorsed Condit's re-election campaign until last week.

She has since changed her mind and has said the congressman's future "is a matter between him and his constituents."

Condit faces a March 5 primary against several local candidates who think the seven-term congressman's relationship with missing 24-year-old federal intern Chandra Levy is a liability to his election chances.

Many state party leaders in California agree and are backing a challenger. Several House Democratic leaders have declined to support Condit's re-election bid.

Rare lynx hairs found in forests exposed as hoax

Federal and state wildlife biologists planted false evidence of a rare cat species in two national forests, officials told The Washington Times.

Had the deception not been discovered, the government likely would have banned many forms of recreation and use of natural resources in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Wenatchee National Forest in Washington state.

The previously unreported Forest Service investigation found that the science of the habitat study had been skewed by seven government officials: three Forest Service employees, two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials and two employees of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The officials planted three separate samples of Canadian lynx hair on rubbing posts used to identify existence of the creatures in the two national forests.

DNA testing of two of the samples matched that of a lynx living inside an animal preserve. The third DNA sample matched that of an escaped pet lynx being held in a federal office until its owner retrieved it, federal officials said.

After the falsified samples were exposed by a Forest Service colleague, the employees said they were not trying to manipulate or expand the lynx habitat, but instead were testing the lab's ability to identify the cat species through DNA analysis, said Joel Holtrop, a Forest Service official.

"Even if that is the case, it was inappropriate," Holtrop said.

Forestry officials, conservationists and retired federal officials said they were outraged that the data were tampered with and said they are skeptical it was an attempt to test the lab.

"I would find the evil-twin argument more plausible," said Rob Gordon, executive director of the National Wilderness Institute.

"That would be like bank robbers taking money from a bank and saying they were just testing the security of a bank, they weren't really stealing the money. That's beautiful, but I don't think it will fly," Gordon said.

Retired Fish and Wildlife Service biologist James M. Beers called the false sampling amazing but not surprising.

"I'm convinced that there is a lot of that going on for so-called higher purposes," Beers said.

The employees have been counseled for their actions and banned from participating in the three-year survey of the lynx, listed as a threatened animal under the Endangered Species Act. Federal officials would not name the offending employees, citing privacy concerns.

The lynx listing and habitat study began in 1999 during the Clinton administration and concludes this year. It was criticized by Westerners as a political move to impose restrictions on public lands.
Federal officials spent thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars trying to duplicate the finding but found no evidence of the creatures.

The hairs were never validated, the samples were thrown out, and the contractor was never paid, West said.

"These are cases of rogue biologists trying to influence natural-resources policy," West said.
"There has clearly been some shenanigans going on here," he said of the false sampling in Washington.

Forest Service officials say this year's errant sampling was caught and therefore did not affect the integrity of the sample survey.

"We have looked at it carefully and feel the overall integrity of the sampling effort is in place, and the ongoing results will have valid scientific and sound results," said Heidi Valetkevitch, Forest Service spokeswoman.

However, the incident has damaged the integrity of the federal agencies within their own ranks and in the communities they serve.

"It destroys the credibility of the hard work we are trying to do to track these animals," said one retired Forest Service employee.

Gordon said the false sampling aggravates an already distrustful relationship between Westerners and the federal government.

"This revelation makes all the projects these offices and individuals were involved in suspect, and may merit review," Gordon said.

Limbaugh surgery called a success

Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh's surgery to implant an electronic hearing device was a success, doctors say.

Limbaugh, 50, who lost his hearing in the spring because of an autoimmune inner-ear disease, should be able to hear sound again within the next few weeks, the doctors said December 20.

The talk show host still faces several weeks of recovery for the incision to heal, said Dr. Antonio De La Cruz of the House Ear Clinic/House Ear Institute in Los Angeles.

Limbaugh underwent the two-hour procedure the day before at St. Vincent Medical Center, across the street from the institute.

"I feel great," Limbaugh said in a statement. "The surgery went smoothly, and I'm looking forward to enjoying the holidays and returning to the air in early January."

He is scheduled to return to the clinic in a few weeks to be fitted for an external unit for his implant.

Limbaugh's condition causes the body's immune system to launch unusual attacks on the inner ear, leading to inflammation of the area.

He has continued broadcasting since losing his hearing. His callers' comments are quickly transcribed so he can read and respond to them.

Limbaugh's show is heard on 600 stations throughout the United States.

Tax and bilingual education initiatives headed to ballot box in Mass.

Initiatives to abolish the state income tax and dramatically restructure Massachusetts' bilingual education program are on their way to the ballot box next year.

Several other ballot questions, including a proposal to ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption, failed to gather the necessary number of signatures, according to the Secretary of State's office.

A question that would define marriage in Massachusetts as a union between one woman and one man gathered more than enough signatures, but because the initiative would change the state constitution it cannot appear on the ballot until 2004.

The approval of just two questions for the 2002 ballot marks a dramatic drop from last year, when voters decided on eight ballot questions.

Voters approved the largest income tax cut in state history and a measure denying incarcerated felons voting rights and rejected a ban on greyhound dog racing and a call for universal health care.

The two questions headed for the 2002 ballot are already sparking debate.

Repealing the state income tax would leave more money in the hands of workers, according to former Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Carla Howell, who is pushing the initiative.

Debate is also focusing on the bilingual education question, which would move most students who are not native English speakers into regular classes after one year in "English-intensive" classes.

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