Dead Fish and Powder Incident Leads to DHS Official’s Suspension
It looks like Maureen McCarthy is dead in the water, at least for the moment.

McCarthy, the DHS bioweapons official who caused a minor sensation earlier this month when she brought a mystery fish and white powder to her downtown office, is “on leave for awhile,” according to a woman answering the phone in her office today.

Asked when she might return, the woman in her office, who did not identify herself, said, “We really don’t know.”

Two other sources familiar with the situation confirmed that McCarthy is on an indefinite leave, with pay.

The fish and unidentified powder had been sent anonymously to the home of McCarthy, who holds a PhD in chemical physics, in early February. She told DHS officials she put the fish and powder into the freezer overnight and brought it to work in the trunk of her car the next morning on the advice of the private security company at her building, according to news reports.

The identity of the person who sent McCarthy the fish and powder has not been made public.

Word had been circulating for the past few days that McCarthy, a scientist who was hired in 2006 to improve DHS intelligence on weapons of mass destruction — which includes biological and chemical agents — had been stripped of her security clearance and suspended.

The discovery of white powder in the fishy package provoked an anthrax scare and evacuation of the Vermont Avenue building, according to Christian Bourge and Chris Strohm, who broke the story in Congress Daily on Feb.10. 

Last week DHS Undersecretary for Management Elaine Duke issued internal guidance to department employees on how to deal with suspicious packages.

“I recommend that every employee keep an emergency contact list near their home phone. Employees should immediately notify local police or call 911 concerning any suspicious package delivered to an employee’s home,” Duke’s memo said.

DHS spokeswoman Amy Kudwa would say only, “I can confirm that Ms. McCarthy is an employee of the department, but I’m not at liberty to provide further specific information regarding her personnel records.”

McCarthy could not be reached for comment.

At the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration, McCarthy helped oversee DOE’s nuclear weapons production programs, which led to creation of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency set up to manage the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.  After that she did a stint at the Pentagon working on ballistic missile defense programs.

Moving to DHS as director of borders and WMD intelligence in the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, she had a hand in establishing the National Center for Medical Intelligence, designed to provide early warning of threats, including avian flu. Later DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff made her his senior adviser for weapons of mass destruction intelligence.

Jeff Stein can be reached at jstein@cq.com. Go to his daily SpyTalk blog at CQ Politics for more on this and other national security topics.