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U.S.: Anthrax Scare Rises

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The anthrax scare is on the rise in the United States. The leader of the U.S. Senate was the latest prominent recipient of a letter that tested positive for anthrax contamination.

Washington, 16 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The leader of the U.S. Senate vows that bio-terrorism threats will not hinder the work of the U.S. Congress.

Senate leader Thomas Daschle made his comments on the Senate floor yesterday after news that his office had received a letter tainted with anthrax bacteria. The Democrat from the Midwestern state of South Dakota said: "This Senate and this institution (U.S. Congress) will not stop. We will not cease our business. We will continue to work."

Earlier yesterday, President George W. Bush announced that Daschle had become the first U.S. official to be targeted with a letter carrying a white, powdery substance that later tested positive for the anthrax bacterium.

The president's announcement at a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi came after days of reports of anthrax scares in three states, with one man dying in the southeastern state of Florida.

Bush said: "I just talked to leader Daschle. His office received a letter and it had anthrax in it. The letter was field tested and the staffers that had been exposed are being treated."

Bush said there may be a link between the anthrax-tainted letters and Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born militant allegedly responsible for the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S.: "I wouldn't put it past him, but we don't have any hard evidence."

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said the letter was opened yesterday after arriving on 12 October at Daschle's office. The letter was postmarked 18 September from Trenton, New Jersey -- the same city from which an anthrax-tainted letter was sent to a prominent NBC News journalist's New York office last week. His assistant, a police officer, and a lab technician tested positive for anthrax exposure in that incident.

Daschle, a strong bipartisan supporter for Bush's policies following the 11 September attacks, said his office had been sealed off. Daschle was not among the 40 people present when the letter was opened. He said possibly exposed people were receiving treatment.

Public tours of the Capitol building in Washington were called off indefinitely and offices in the House of Representatives and the Senate were urged not to open their mail. Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, said White House staff were on full alert for possible suspicious mail.

Daschle said he was angered by the incident: "I am concerned deeply for my staff and feel so badly for each of them. They are innocent people caught up in a matter for which they have nothing to do. I am very, very disappointed and angered; I am confident, however, as I said a moment ago, that because we anticipated something like this, we are able to deal with it as successfully as we are this morning."

Police Lieutenant Dan Nichols, part of the force protecting the U.S. Capitol building, said that although the letter had been field-tested twice, the tests were preliminary and a more thorough examination of the letter and its contents was being carried out at a nearby military facility.

Nichols said: "We need to caution everyone that this is a criminal investigation now and we are very limited in the information we can put forward. This is not totally unexpected, though. U.S. Capitol Police [have] been working closely with leadership and other law-enforcement agencies, and also the Department of Defense, in preparation for this type of event. Unfortunately, today it came to pass within our jurisdiction."

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has asked Congress for more than $1.5 billion to cope with bioterrorism threats.

Also yesterday, a Continental Airlines flight and its 150 passengers and crew were quarantined in Cleveland after a powdery substance was discovered on board. The flight had arrived from Las Vegas.

Scares involving anthrax-like white powder, however, were hardly limited the U.S.

Similar incidents were being probed in Germany, Britain, Switzerland, France, Australia, and Lithuania. No anthrax has so far been confirmed outside of the U.S. and it was not immediately clear if any of these scares were real or hoaxes.

In Mexico City, four policemen were treated after handling suspicious envelopes that contained a white powder that turned out to be rat poison.

In Germany, which has strongly backed the U.S. military action in Afghanistan, the mail room of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was sealed off after workers discovered a white powder trickling from an envelope. Initial signs have shown no trace of bacteria.