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Jonathan Karl: Capitol Hill Anthrax Investigation

Jonathan Karl is a congressional correspondent for CNN. He joined the chat room from Washington, DC.

CNN: Are trace bits of anthrax being found in the offices of Senators Christopher Dodd and Ted Kennedy new incidents? Or might they date back to the original mailing of the Daschle letter?

KARL: We don't know for sure, but it certainly seems to be that this is simply cross-contamination from the Daschle letter, which is nothing new, and nothing particularly alarming.

CNN: How did the latest discovery occur?

KARL: They've been going from room to room, concentrating on mailrooms, to look for traces, and this came up as part of that process.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is the cost so far for the clean-up? Or is that a national secret that Congress has to go to committee and then vote on?

KARL: It's not a national secret, but they have not paying much attention to the cost. The attitude is: do what it takes to get rid of the anthrax, and worry about paying for it later. In fact, that's been the attitude about a lot of things on Capitol Hill since September 11.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: Does the government suspect any domestic extremist groups?

KARL: That's precisely what they're looking into now. Investigators now believe that it is likely that this is the work of a domestic group, but they certainly have not ruled out a link to September 11, and they really have gotten almost nowhere in this investigation.

CNN: What does this mean for the long-term operations on Capitol Hill and the morale of those who work there?

KARL: The biggest fact is that immediately and into the midterm is the mail. For Congress, mail is a big deal. It's how a lot of the work gets done. No one has received any mail on Capitol Hill since that letter to Daschle was opened. Sure, there's an effect on morale. It's strange to come to work every day, and see Capitol police wearing rubber gloves while looking through your bag.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Have there been any Republicans who have received anthrax letters yet?

KARL: First, there's no indication that either Senators Dodd or Kennedy received any anthrax letters. The only two letters that are known are to Leahy and Daschle, both Democrats. There have been traces of anthrax found in the offices of at least three Republicans, but no letters.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do Senators open their own mail?

KARL: Generally, no. Senators actually have a staff to deal specifically with opening, reading, categorizing and responding to mail. They do, however, sometimes open their personal mail. In fact, Daschle's letter wasn't even opened in the office where he works every day.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think the latest DC anthrax targets give us a better profile of the person (or persons) who are sending it?

KARL: That is exactly what the FBI hopes, and they are going about examining the Leahy letter in a very methodical way, treating it as evidence first and foremost. As of yesterday, they hadn't even opened the letter yet, trying to preserve the integrity of the letter, looking for everything from the presence of fingerprints to DNA.

CNN: Shifting the subject to other Hill news, how did George W. Bush's decision to name the Justice Department after Robert F. Kennedy play at the Capitol?

KARL: Don't forget that Robert Kennedy was also a former Senator. The decision was applauded, and among the Republicans who were enthusiastic about it was Representative Scarborough, who took the initiative in getting this done. Interesting thing happened yesterday, however. At an awards presentation on Capitol Hill, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, the daughter of RFK, harshly criticized the President and his Justice Department for the decision to use military tribunals in some terrorism cases. She said her father would have disapproved. Interestingly, though, some of her siblings, including Joe Kennedy, disagreed with that, pointing out that RFK was very tough on crime.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?

KARL: I wish everybody a happy Thanksgiving. When Congress returns next week, certainly expect some political fireworks, as they try to figure out what to do about the slumping economy.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

KARL: Thank you!

Jonathan Karl joined the chat room via telephone from Washington, DC and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview at 2 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, November 21, 2001.


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