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U.S.: Bush Reassures Jittery Nation

  • Jeffrey Donovan

As anthrax attacks shut down the U.S. Congress, Americans are jittery about terrorism. President George W. Bush, stopping over in California before heading to an economic summit in China, says the fight against terrorism is a battle for their own safety and way of life.

Washington, 18 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On an unnerving day when anthrax scares shut down the United States House of Representatives, President George W. Bush sought to reassure Americans that the government is doing all it can to protect them from terrorism.

As Bush stopped over in the western state of California on his way to an Asian economic summit in the Chinese port of Shanghai, the leader of the U.S. Senate announced that more than two dozen members of his staff had been exposed to the potentially deadly anthrax bacterium after receiving tainted mail.

That development prompted the House of Representatives to shut down until 23 October as a precaution to allow inspection of the chamber for possible traces of anthrax.

Later, New York Governor George Pataki announced that his Manhattan office had also tested positive for the presence of anthrax, though no staff members had been exposed.

None of the U.S. anthrax incidents has so far been linked to terrorists or Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born militant believed to be behind the September attacks on New York and Washington. But investigators are treating the incidents as criminal cases.

Bush told a group of business leaders in California's capital, Sacramento, that the fight against terrorism was a battle for Americans' own security. Bush said: "We are fighting for the security of our people, for the success of our ideals and for stability in large parts of the world. We fight evil people who are distorting and betraying a great religion to justify their murder."

Bush said that no matter what the threat against the U.S., Americans and their government would not back down: "Our people are united. Our government is determined. Our cause is right. And justice will be done."

Anthrax scares have unnerved Americans since a man in the southeastern state of Florida recently died after opening a letter carrying a white powder tainted with the bacterium.

Similar letters have been sent to NBC News in New York City and to an office in the western state of Nevada. In all, four cases of anthrax infection have been reported, including a seven-month-old baby in New York City.

But many more people have been exposed to the bacterium, which is potentially deadly when inhaled but usually treatable with antibiotics when contracted through skin contact. The illness is not contagious.

Thomas Daschle, the Senate majority leader, said yesterday that more than 30 people, most of them his staff members, were exposed to anthrax after his office received a letter containing a form of the bacterium ground into minute particles that flew into the air when the envelope was opened.

Daschle, who was not present at the time of the exposure, said some 1,400 people who work in the Senate offices have also been tested, but the results will not be known until later today. As a precaution, the Senate's three office buildings will remain closed for inspection until next week.

A soft-spoken Democrat from South Dakota, Daschle said he was confident that his staff members would fully recover after taking Cipro, an anthrax-attacking antibiotic. Again, Daschle: "Because of the early access to the antibiotics, the overwhelming advice I'm now being given by health-care personnel is that each of my staff members will be okay."

But Daschle vowed that the Senate would continue its session, including meeting for voting today. "It's my strong determination, and [Minority Leader] Senator [Trent] Lott's determination as well, that we will not let this stop the work of the Senate."

The Senate's decision contrasted with that of the House of Representatives. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt said its members did not want to take any chances: "We don't know if there's been involvement in any of our buildings. We don't think there is. But we need to make sure. And the best way to do that is to get people out of the buildings and allow the proper authorities with the proper equipment to determine whether or not we face any threat from anthrax in any part of the building."

In a significant development, the federal government's Centers for Disease Control said yesterday that the letters received by the Florida man who died and by NBC News in New York were tainted with the same strain of anthrax.

Analysts said that was a clear indication that a single source could be behind the tainted letters. If Daschle's letter turns out to be infected with the same strain, then the work of investigators could have a significant lead.

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