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Last Updated

03 Jan 2003

Source: Washington Post, October 17, 2001.

Anthrax on Senate Letter Called Potent

Investigators Pursue Links to Fla., N.Y. Letters

By John Lancaster and Dan Eggen, Washington Post Staff Writers

The anthrax that arrived in the office mail of Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle on Monday is a highly potent, finely milled variety that spreads easily by air and is similar to the spores that killed Florida photo editor Robert Stevens almost two weeks ago, senior government officials said yesterday.

Senior officials also disclosed that the letter sent to Daschle bears striking similarities -- including references to Allah and a warning that the envelope contained anthrax -- to another contaminated envelope sent to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw.

Although it has yet to be established that the anthrax sent to Brokaw and Daschle is the same high-grade variety, FBI investigators believe that the three cases -- in Florida, New York and now Washington -- are likely connected, officials said.

"Mr. Stevens died of pulmonary anthrax, which is the finely milled anthrax, which is what we believe we see in the Daschle letter," a senior government official said. "We're looking at the NBC case to see if it's the same kind. . . . We think we're going to see a connection between the three."

After tests confirmed the presence of anthrax in the letter sent to Daschle, authorities yesterday sealed the southeast wing of the Hart Senate Office Building, where his office is situated. They closed 12 Senate offices as hundreds of congressional aides and others underwent medical screening and began taking antibiotics as a precautionary measure.

Authorities said the growing web of connections among the bioterrorist episodes has deepened suspicions that they may be linked, and may be connected to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

They did emphasize that there is no firm evidence to tie them to Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden, the purported mastermind of the hijackings.

Tom Ridge, the new director of the White House Office of Homeland Security, said yesterday he suspects the anthrax contamination is linked to the Sept. 11 attacks and bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

"To me, it's just beyond coincidence," Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor, told the Associated Press. "It's more than coincidence, and we don't have the credible evidence. It's somewhere in between."

Ridge said he gets regular intelligence, as well as law enforcement and military briefings. "As the evidence unwinds, there may end up being a formal tie" between the anthrax case and bin Laden, he said.

Authorities declined to comment publicly on whether the anthrax in the three known bioterrorist episodes may have come from the same source, saying they were awaiting conclusive test results. Investigators are still studying the contents of a letter sent to a Microsoft office in Nevada, but officials increasingly have come to believe that incident may have been a false alarm.

Yesterday's most striking disclosure initially came from Daschle. After receiving a briefing on the investigation, he told reporters -- on the basis of tests conducted Monday night in a military lab in Fort Detrick, Md. -- that the letter contained "a very strong form of anthrax, a very potent form of anthrax that was clearly produced by someone who knows what he or she is doing."

A federal official said last night the anthrax was of a potency capable of killing thousands of people if dispersed in the air and appeared to have been developed for purposes of biological warfare.

Capitol police and Daschle emphasized, however, that there was no evidence the anthrax in the envelope had contaminated Daschle's office, the Hart building or anyone in it.

Senators came away from yesterday's briefing with the strong impression that the anthrax was, as Daschle suggested, of a potent and concentrated nature. One senator, asking not to be named, said it was characterized as "weapon-grade." Another, also requesting anonymity, said it was described as "high-quality."

Authorities had indicated a connection between the letters to Brokaw and Daschle, both of which were postmarked in Trenton, N.J.

The letter to Brokaw, postmarked Sept. 18, was opened by an assistant, Erin O'Connor, 38, who has fallen ill with a skin-transmitted form of the disease that is less serious than the pulmonary, or inhaled, variety that killed Robert Stevens on Oct. 2 and has afflicted one of his co-workers, Ernesto Blanco, 73.

The infant son of an ABC producer in New York has also been diagnosed with cutaneous anthrax, though the source of that infection remains unknown. Nine other people may have been exposed to the bacterium in Florida and New York.

Copies of the envelopes to those letters released yesterday -- to alert the public to similar mailings -- showed they featured block-like, childish script sloping down and to the right. The letter to Daschle was postmarked Oct. 8. Both letters were about six lines long, stated that their envelopes contained anthrax and made reference to Allah. FBI officials noted that one came with a fake return address. The letter to Daschle bore a return address of the Greendale School in Franklin Park, N.J. No such school is listed there.

There were conflicting reports last night about whether the anthrax in the two letters may have came from the same source. While a senior government official suggested that such would turn out to be the case, following completion of tests, U.S. Postal Inspector Dan Mihalko said his office has been told that the New York and Washington anthrax strains are not the same, that the anthrax received by Daschle's office is stronger. The two strains are being compared now, he said.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is evaluating the samples, and it is "premature" to discuss similarities or differences because the tests have not been completed.

Caree Vander Linden, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, said "There is no evidence that this is engineered to be more potent than the naturally occurring form of anthrax. The question of whether it was genetically modified -- there is no evidence of that."

On Capitol Hill, police closed off the southeast wing of the eight-story Hart building, where the letter was opened in Daschle's office by a junior member of his staff at 10:15 a.m. Monday. Police said they had no evidence that anyone in Daschle's office -- or elsewhere in the building -- had been exposed to anthrax, and emphasized they had sealed the area as a precaution so the ventilation system could be checked.

Also as a precaution, Capitol physician John Eisold advised anyone who had been in the Hart building on Monday to undergo medical screening for anthrax exposure and start treatment with Cipro.

Yesterday, hundreds of congressional staff and others lined up outside a hearing room on the second floor of the Hart building, where medical staff took a swab from each nostril of those tested and distributed three-day supplies of the antibiotic. Those who took the test were advised to return on Thursday for the results and further medical advice.

Many of those waiting in line wondered why they had not been told to leave the building on Monday. "They should have just evacuated the building when they found out," said Rebecca Kessler, 23, a staff assistant in the Republican conference office on the fourth floor of the Hart building.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Daschle said the overall risk to people who may have been in the building in Monday is "negligible . . . almost nonexistent" because of the effectiveness of the antibiotics against anthrax.

Daschle said his staff tested negative in preliminary tests for infection and "I'm quite confident that will remain the case."

The office of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), which is next door to Daschle's, was closed yesterday. Baucus said he planned to get tested later in the day.

He said he wasn't criticizing anyone, but that too many questions remain unanswered involving the origin of the letter, health risks and other issues. "We're in a whole different world and we've lost our innocence," he said.

Sens. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) also were tested.

In Florida yesterday, Secretary of Health John O. Agwunobi said that more than 1,100 people in the state have been tested for anthrax. He said that all but about 50 of the nasal swab test results have come back.

So far, three people have been confirmed as infected: Stevens, 63; Blanco, the mailroom employee who has been hospitalized and is being treated with antibiotics; and Stephanie Dailey, 36, an administrative clerk who had anthrax in her nasal passages but has shown no symptoms and is being treated with antibiotics preventively.

Officials at American Media Inc., the tabloid newspaper company, have said blood tests on five other employees indicated they had been exposed to anthrax. But Agwunobi and other health officials said no conclusions can be drawn about those employees until a second set of blood tests is completed.

Agwunobi said health officials were looking into whether a former AMI intern is ill as a result of anthrax. Jordan Arizmendi, who has been hospitalized with a fever, initially was suspected by some employees as having been involved in the anthrax contamination of AMI because he had written a seemingly suspicious e-mail before leaving his job. Subsequently, law enforcement officials said the former intern was not a suspect. Agwunobi said Arizmendi had been tested but that results were not yet available.

Also, Judy Orihuela, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Miami office, said investigators believe the anthrax inside the AMI building was received by letter. She said investigators have not drawn that conclusion because of a specific letter that has been discovered, but rather because of the anthrax spores found in the building's mailroom, in the nasal cavities of two AMI mail handlers and in a post office that sorts mail for the building.

AMI employees said they have been told by the newspaper company that they will never have to go back to work in the contaminated building. They said the tabloids, including the National Enquirer, Globe and Sun, will find new editorial offices.

Mueller also acknowledged that there were "missteps" in the FBI's initial delay in testing a suspicious letter received by NBC News. He said the delay did not affect the outcome of the investigation, but that FBI offices around the country have been given instructions about prompt testing.

Staff writers Bob Woodward, Susan Schmidt, Helen Dewar, Justin Blum, Peter Slevin, Michael Powell, Ellen Nakashima, David Brown, Ceci Connolly and Christine Haughney contributed to this report.