Washington » One doesn't normally think of a tea bag as a threat to national security.
But the small packets, when mailed to a member of Congress as a form of tax protest, can trigger alarms, given the post-9/11 anthrax scare. One office recently was closed down over a tea-bag scare.
From regular Lipton's brand to a special-Boston-tea-party signature blend, the mailed symbols are appearing in congressional offices thanks to various efforts sprouting up across America as a way to vent against high tax bills.
With the IRS filing deadline of April 15 approaching, several communities are planning "Tea Parties" to highlight the nation's massive spending and debt, and some taxpayers are grabbing tea packets out of the cupboards and addressing them to Washington, D.C.
Utah state Sen. Margaret Dayton put a green tea packet in an envelope and sent hers to the White House. The Orem conservative says Americans need to remind the federal government that they should be a blessing and not a burden to their citizens. She didn't realize the tea might set off alarms, but she still says it's important to send a message.
"I guess I'm a threat to the federal government but it was certainly unintentional," Dayton joked.
She adds that like the small band that sparked the Revolutionary War, people can't sit idly by.
"I think its all part of a grass-roots effort to show our frustration" with massive spending, she said.
But as innocent as tea bags seem, they can cause false security responses when sensors detect an unknown substance. After the anthrax scare of 2001, when letters with the deadly spores were mailed to Congress, authorities don't take anything lightly.
A Manchester, N.H., congressional office was shut down recently when a tea bag was mistaken for something more sinister. Letters sent to Congress are irradiated and opened at a special facility before they are delivered.
Aides to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, have received a handful of letters in his office where the tea bags have been removed, and Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson's office has received a few as well. Even the Utah state Senate has received two tea bags, one from a Sandy resident identifying himself as "citizen of USA."
Brian Sperry, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, says that tea bags in the mail "cause us some concern."
"They could pose a problem if the tea bag is mailed in a regular envelope instead of a padded bag," Sperry says. "Other than a few isolated incidents, however, we haven't seen much so far."
Sperry says the Postal Service likes the idea that some groups are promoting to send photos of tea bags or just writing the words "tea bag" on the envelope.
Either way, Capitol Police aren't discouraging or encouraging the effort.
"We can't control who mails what to wherever," said Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, a spokeswoman. "At all times, [United States Capitol Police] will investigate and take the appropriate police action in response to any calls to us for any suspicious items that congressional staff might be concerned about."
If you're going to protest, one group called teabagcongress.com is attempting to get its readers to send "virtual tea bags."
"Do not send a real tea bag to anyone," the group warns. "Doing so is open to abuse and misinterpretation."