A DC mystery behind a 9/11 newspaper column

U.S. Postal Service trucks sit parked outside a station in Chelsea, New York.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

On Wednesday, an alarming headline appeared on the website of USA Today atop an opinion column written by former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. "15 years after 9/11, a gaping security gap," it said.

The column was perfectly timed, coming just four days before the anniversary of the attack on the United States — a moment when the tragedy was certain to be on the minds of millions of Americans. And Ridge, a former governor of Pennsylvania, had a tough message for his readers: America is not safe. "There remains a gaping hole in our national security preparedness, coming from a largely ignored source," Ridge wrote.

The threat on Ridge's mind doesn't come from ISIS-inspired killers inside the United States, as in the recent attacks in Orlando and San Bernardino. Instead, the threat Ridge wrote about comes from the post office.

Parcels coming into the United States are not adequately screened for threats from overseas, Ridge argued, leaving a dangerous security gap that could be exploited by terrorists. In the column, Ridge said he was joining a new group called "Americans for Securing All Packages."

What exactly is "Americans for Securing All Packages?"

That's something of a mystery. But a little digging reveals a small example of the way money, power, and national security interact in Washington 15 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Who we are

On its website, Americans for Securing All Packages features a "Who We Are" section explaining that the group is a "coalition of families, health care advocates, security experts, businesses and non-profits who believe it is time to close a dangerous security gap that leaves our nation vulnerable to foreign attacks and invites illegal and toxic drugs into our communities." The group — a nonprofit that does not have to disclose its donors — officially debuted on the same day Ridge's column appeared.

The website lists two senior advisors: Ridge, who was the first assistant to the president for homeland security under President George W. Bush, and Juliette Kayyem, a former Obama administration homeland security official and current CNN analyst.

Under the heading for "contact information," the group does not list a phone number or an address. District of Columbia incorporation records, however, show that the group was registered on June 23, and its address is 700 13th Street, NW, Suite 600.

That just happens to be the address of a powerhouse D.C. law and lobbying firm called Perkins Coie. On the documents, the incorporator of Americans for Securing all Packages is listed as Ezra W. Reese. He is a partner at Perkins Coie whose online biography says his practice is focused on "nonprofit organizations that wish to engage in lobbying or electoral activity."

Reese did not return a phone call from CNBC. Instead, a message left at his office was returned by Jill Zuckman, a managing director at the influential Washington public relations firm SKD Knickerbocker. Zuckman said: "I'm not going to be able to disclose who is funding this," citing the 501(c )(4) tax status of Americans for Securing All Packages.

Although the website's "who we are" section says the group is a "coalition of families," Zuckman said she was unable to provide the names of any families who are affiliated with Americans for Securing All Packages. The group is still lining up members, she explained, and "in the days to come we'll be rolling out other people." Several soon-to-be-announced members will be nonprofit groups interested in stopping the spread of drugs, Zuckman said. "We worked really hard to make this bipartisan."

Not volunteers

Tom Ridge, Former Secretary of Homeland Security
William B. Plowman | NBC | Getty Images

How did Ridge come to be involved with the new group?

"The coalition went to him and talked to him about the issue and he thought it was a really serious issue and he wanted to help," Zuckman said. Same with Kayyem.

But Ridge is not a volunteer. What is not mentioned in his USA Today op-ed is that Ridge is being paid by Americans for Securing All Packages. So is Kayyem. "We're paying him and Juliette for their time — for spending their time to talk about this issue," Zuckman said. She declined to reveal how much Ridge and Kayyem have been paid.

This week, Kayyem sent out a tweet to her more than 14,000 followers: "I'm leading a coalition to close a security gap that exposes families to illegal drugs and terrorist attacks." She urged followers to check out the new Twitter handle of Americans for Securing All Packages, an account that was created in July and had, on Thursday, exactly 15 followers.

On Thursday, Kayyem published her own op-ed piece, this one in The Boston Globe, that like Ridge, referred to a "security gap." Analyzing just how far American security has come since 9/11, Kayyem said one major gap remains: "Small packages coming into the United States from foreign postal services are not monitored or tracked, as required by law." In an interview with WTOP radio in Washington, Kayyem underscored the point. "The gap is essentially when mail is sent to the United States from foreign countries; if it's of a certain weight, it doesn't go through normal cargo surveillance like the mail that is sent through private mailing services such as UPS and FedEx," Kayyem said.

Where is the money coming from?

Still, the mystery remained: Where is the money coming from for all this?

Another clue can be found in public records.

Ridge and Kayyem both mentioned two public companies: UPS and FedEx. Ridge wrote that those companies follow strict new security procedures implemented after Sept. 11, but their government-run competitor, the U.S. Postal Service, does not — despite a law called the Trade Act of 2002 and a recommendation by Congress that agencies "be provided with the electronic security data necessary to weed out dangerous packages."

Senate records reveal that this exact issue is one focus of the lobbying effort of UPS, which has spent more than $4.5 million lobbying in Washington so far in 2016.

Among the various measures UPS is pushing on Capitol Hill, the documents show, is a bill that would "apply customs and security parity to posts and the private sector for all parcels imported to the U.S."

A spokeswoman for UPS, Kara Gerhardt Ross, said that the parcel service company is familiar with Americans for Securing All Packages. In fact, she said, UPS contributes to a trade association that finances the new nonprofit. She would not disclose dollar amounts. "We're aware of the group and we're supportive of it," Ross said. "We were happy to see Tom Ridge out there talking about this issue, because we've been talking about it for a long time." Mail security, Ross said, is important. "It's something we believe needs to be done for all packages."

A spokesperson for FedEx said the company belongs to the same trade association that has financed Americans for Securing All Packages, but was not directly involved in the campaign.

A little Washington mystery

So that's at least part of the answer to the little Washington mystery: UPS has a dispute with the U.S. Postal Service. UPS funds a trade association, which funds a brand new nonprofit group, which funds a public relations firm and pays Ridge to talk about the problem, and Ridge in turn sends in an op-ed to USA Today. Got all that?

"It's a public education campaign," said Zuckman.

It's possible that there are other companies and groups funding the campaign. Because of the nonprofit disclosure rules, it's not possible to say exactly who is paying, and who is getting paid.

A spokesman for Ridge, Steve Aaron, said that Ridge is proud to serve as an advisor to the new coalition. "He is a risk-management consultant," Aaron said in an email to CNBC. "That's his job and he's paid for his time and expertise. But he does not take work he doesn't believe in. He is sincerely concerned about this issue and believes it is important to speak up."

Aaron declined to answer a question about how much Ridge was paid. Asked if Ridge wrote the op-ed column himself, Aaron emailed CNBC: "The op-ed belongs to Gov. Ridge and these are his views."

Kayyem said in a statement to CNBC: "I'm a national security expert and while I will receive a stipend for my time consistent with all other efforts I believe in, I am proud to serve as a policy adviser helping to make our country safer for families and communities." After The Boston Globe first published her op-ed, it was later amended to include a disclosure that Kayyem is a senior advisor to Americans for Securing All Packages.

A spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service said he didn't know who is funding Americans for Securing All Packages. He said: "The U.S. Postal Service shares the goal of those calling for expanding efforts to keep illicit drugs and other dangerous materials out of the hands of the American public and maintaining the safety of our nation's mail system." The issue of the security of mail took on new urgency just one week after 9/11 when letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to the offices of a handful of news organizations and to two U.S. Senators, killing five people and infecting 17 others.

Fifteen years later, Ridge's readers wouldn't know any of the complicated back story to his column, of course. What they know is that Ridge is calling on Washington to "require that all postal carriers, not just private companies, do their part to keep our country safe," as the column said. "The safety of our country depends on it."

And in some ways, so does UPS.