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Last Updated

09 Jan 2003

Source: New York Times, November 20, 2001

Investigators Liken Anthrax in Leahy Letter to That Sent to Daschle


WASHINGTON, Nov. 19 -- A plastic bag holding the sealed letter sent to Senator Patrick J. Leahy was so contaminated that federal investigators strongly suspect that the anthrax is comparable to the highly refined material sent last month to Senator Tom Daschle, law enforcement officials said today.

Scientists for the Federal Bureau of Investigation said in interviews today that a sample taken late last week from the bag showed the presence of 23,000 anthrax spores. This, the scientists said, was roughly three orders of magnitude more spores than found in samples from any of the other 600 bags of mail the bureau examined before isolating the letter to Senator Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.

One F.B.I. microbiologist said that this number of spores equated to more than two lethal doses of inhalation anthrax making the bag itself highly dangerous.

Law enforcement officials disclosed their findings today in a broad discussion of an intensive week's work that resulted in the discovery last Friday of the Leahy letter among some 280 barrels containing 600 plastic bags of quarantined, unopened mail destined for Capitol Hill and now stored in a warehouse outside Washington. The officials described how dozens of specially trained F.B.I. and Environmental Protection Agency officials sorted and sampled the bags and their contents, isolating those that tested positive for anthrax.

Postal investigators said the letter also provided clues about the route it followed in the postal system. Daniel Mihalko, a spokesman for the postal inspectors branch of the postal service, said tonight that an optical reader misread the hand-written 20510 ZIP code for the Capitol as 20520, which serves the State Department.

"The one was made in such a way with a serif on the bottom that it was read by the optical character reader as a 2," Mr. Mihalko said. He said the agency assumes the letter was sent to the State Department, which could explain how that agency's mail system became contaminated and a worker there contracted inhalation anthrax.

Until today, the F.B.I. had not even confirmed that the Leahy letter contained anthrax, let alone the possibility that the material was comparable to the Daschle letter's finely milled particles, which wafted through the air and spread quickly in the Hart Senate office building after the envelope was opened in the office of Senator Daschle, the Democratic leader, on Oct. 15.

In a statement issued today, the F.B.I. said that "from the outside, the Leahy letter appears virtually identical" to the Daschle letter.

One official called the effort that led to the discovery of the Leahy letter a "large and unique operation." He said it was based on a study plan, or protocol, specifically devised for a dangerous and new situation.

"We had no idea if we would get positive hits or if everything we tested would be hot," one scientist said.

"We had never done anything quite like this before," another official said.

Meanwhile, the F.B.I. and the United States Army laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., have devised an elaborate new plan for analyzing the sealed Leahy letter -- evidence that they consider the best clue yet as to who might have leveled the attack of anthrax-tainted letters against senators and news organizations.

The plan, which officials said was completed earlier today, is the result of intensive consultations among anthrax and forensics experts from throughout the world who quietly assembled in Washington this weekend to discuss how best to extract all the forensic clues from the Leahy letter.

Maj. Gen. John Parker, the commander of the Fort Detrick laboratory, said in an interview that the protocol was "coordinated' with the F.B.I. and "carefully plans the analysis of the newly discovered letter."

Both the Army laboratory and the F.B.I. are eager to avoid the lack of coordination that produced last month's conflicting assessments from two separate laboratories of the potency and characteristics of the Daschle anthrax.

Another law enforcement official said that scientists from the F.B.I. and the Fort Detrick laboratory would begin analyzing the Leahy letter "side by side" on Tuesday.

Though neither General Parker nor law enforcement officials would discuss the tests that were planned, some experts said the letter would certainly be closely checked for forensic evidence, like fingerprints or DNA, and its contents subjected to many of the same tests done on the anthrax sent to Senator Daschle.

"From a forensic standpoint," said a law enforcement official, the discovery of the sealed Leahy letter is "our best opportunity to date" to solve a case that has so far baffled investigators. At least 17 people have been infected with anthrax in either its inhalation or skin form; four people have died. An additional 30,000 people have been put on antibiotics.

Investigators today also reported finding trace amounts of anthrax in the mailroom of the Washington headquarters of the Bureau of Prisons, said a spokeswoman, Traci Billingsley. The mail room has been sealed off, she said. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they had detected "scant contamination."

During the seven-day search that ended with the discovery of the Leahy letter, about 6 of the 600 bags of mail were found to contain what officials said were moderately high concentrations of anthrax -- from about 100 spores to 300 spores.

One bag had a huge anthrax spore count compared with the others. Investigators carefully carried the bag to a specially enclosed room and emptied the letters into a closed biological safety cabinet kept clean by air flows and special seals.

An official said that the investigators worked in teams of two: a "clean" investigator who did not handle contaminated material and a "dirty" investigator who handled the bags and contaminated letters.

It was about 5 p.m. on Friday when an agent found the letter. It was encased in plastic tape.

An F.B.I. microbiologist who was standing outside the room looking in through a window recalled the scene. "I saw someone's hands go up in the air," he said. He was unable to hear any words from the agent, who was wearing a respirator. "They were looking for a letter that looked just like the others, and there it was."

After the discovery of the contaminated letter to Mr. Daschle on Oct. 15, the mail to Capitol Hill had been set aside in the plastic bags that were then packed into 286 drums. At an undisclosed site, F.B.I. agents and Environmental Protection Agency employees constructed a large room sealed in plastic to handle potentially contaminated material.

The air flow into and out of the room was filtered and carefully monitored. Outside the work floor was a decontamination area kept free of microbes. Each investigator involved in the search for the letter was offered antibiotics. Those who worked in the "hot zone" were required to take them. Their clothing was checked for anthrax when they left the work area.

The tests progressed slowly. Investigators cut a small hole in each plastic bag, swabbing the inside to locate anthrax spores. The initial testing turned up the roughly six bags that showed traces of anthrax.

"We took all the bags we considered hot and narrowed it down," the official said.

"This was a large operation," said one official, "the largest hazardous material investigation of its kind in the F.B.I.'s history."