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Attorney General Holds News Briefing

Aired October 8, 2001 - 13:44   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: The attorney general, John Ashcroft, beginning his briefing.


JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: ... Governor Tom Ridge as the head of the Office of Homeland Security.

The tragic events of September 11 show how critical it is to have a coordinated and a comprehensive national strategy to protect the United States against terrorist attacks.

I welcome Governor Ridge wholeheartedly and I look forward to working with him on the difficult tasks that together we face and of course in the challenges that he faces.

Yesterday, the president ordered the United States military to begin strikes against Al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Consistent with this development, I have instructed federal law enforcement to be at the and on the highest level of alert to strengthen America's protections.

We are taking strong precautions and other appropriate steps to protect American people while we win this war.

The FBI, through the National Threat Warning System, has contacted 18,000 law enforcement organizations and 27,000 corporate security managers, advising them of this highest state of alert.

We get some multiplier affect out of those notifications, particularly in the corporate system, because many of the corporate individuals and institutions on the alert sheet have call lists which they undertake and share information with others.

Similar warnings have been sent to information sharing and analysis centers. All law enforcement agencies have been asked to evaluate whether additional local security measures are warranted in the light of the current threat level.

In addition, authorities in telecommunications, electrical power generation and distribution, banking and finance, oil and gas, information technology, water service providers and railroads have been similarly advised and are the subject of regular communication. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has implemented a heightened border security plan, and all United States Attorneys' Offices continue to be on heightened alert.

To safeguard our nuclear facilities, all have been placed at the highest state of alert and have increased the physical security in and around the facilities. Thorough screening of all employees and of individuals with access to those facilities is also being undertaken.

Similar steps are being taken in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency with regard to industrial, chemical and petrochemical facilities.

The FAA will continue restrictions implemented to protect populated areas and sporting events and certain critical infrastructure components of our industrial base.

I believe, as the president does, that the best defense against terrorism is a multi-front offensive. And since September 11, we have arrested or detained 614 persons. We continue to look for 229 additional individuals.

Our national law enforcement network, involving millions of Americans, will continue working around the clock to find the people who were involved in the September 11 attacks and to disrupt any future plans for terrorism in America.

I encourage all Americans to continue to have a heightened sense of awareness of their surroundings. I ask for them to report suspicious activity to our partners in law enforcement at every level of law enforcement, from local law enforcement to state authorities to federal authorities.

Every American should be vigilant, and we're counting on each American to help us defend our nation in this war.

I also encourage the Congress to pass quickly the anti-terrorism legislation proposed by the administration so that law enforcement may have at its immediate disposal all appropriate anti-terrorism tools to fight this war.

Osama bin Laden broadcast a message yesterday celebrating the attacks of September 11. He glorifies the terrorists who kill thousands of innocent men, women and children with no warning and no mercy. He distorts religion to promote death and to destroy life. He seeks fear, chaos and terror for the American people, and he swears to steal our sense of security in America. This is the face of evil.

After hearing his chilling words, there can be no doubt that America's actions of self-defense are justified. Although we must be aware of the heightened risk, we must not let that risk affect the freedom that makes America great. While we must be attentive to the threat, we must not yield to fear.

The president pledged that America would not waiver, would not tire, would not falter, would not fail. Americans will rise to meet the president's call and our response which will reinforce liberty.

I'd be pleased to answer questions.


QUESTION: Attorney General Ashcroft, a second man, as you know, has inhaled anthrax spores in Florida. What can you tell us about this case, and is it clear at this point that this is a deliberate criminal act or is there still a possibility that it is an accidental exposure?

ASHCROFT: Let me try and state carefully what I know. And I believe that from the nose of an individual the bacillus anthracis was found -- don't know whether it's accurate to say he inhaled it. This indicates the exposure of a second person, at least.

We take this very seriously. Together with local authorities and health authorities, we have sealed the building. We are relying on the Centers for Disease Control and health authorities to provide expertise which we do not have. And, very frankly, we are unable to make a conclusive statement about the nature of this, as either an attack or an occurrence absent more definitive laboratory and other investigative returns.

QUESTION: Is the FBI approaching it, though, from an investigative -- criminal investigation standpoint?

ASHCROFT: We are working very diligently, together with health authorities, to learn all we can and we are seeking to contain, by virtue of sealing the building, this situation thoroughly. The CDC has issued a statement regarding this matter which I found instructive and I hope you have it. I have read it carefully and it is -- I think it states matters pretty clearly.


QUESTION: Is this a criminal investigation at this point?

ASHCROFT: We regard this as an investigation which could become a clear criminal investigation, and we are pursuing this with all the dispatch and care that's appropriate, relying on the expertise of the Centers for Disease Control and health authorities, which obviously is an expertise that's nontraditional in the Justice Department.


QUESTION: Do you regard it as something that could potentially become a terrorist-related investigation?

ASHCROFT: We don't have enough information to know whether this could be related to terrorism or not. There are, according to my understanding, and which is very limited, various strains of anthrax.

Some are naturally occurring and some occur only having been generated in laboratories.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Sir, because of how close the site was to one of the flight training schools, where Mr. Atta had been several weeks ago, do you regard Mr. Atta as a potential suspect in this case?

ASHCROFT: I think it's fair to say that we are taking the matter very seriously. The kind of examination which we are conducting is very thorough. It includes the steps that are necessary to safeguard the area totally. But we haven't ruled out -- on the basis of the investigation, we haven't ruled out anything at this time.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Since our retaliatory strikes yesterday, have you received any new threats or anything that's more alarming?

ASHCROFT: I'm not prepared to, nor will we, I believe, get in the situation where we try to outline all the threats that may or may not come to the United States on a regular basis.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: On not yielding to fear, do you believe that the American people should continue to do things, like go to sporting events, like using mass transit? Is there any threat that you would specifically warn people about, at this point?

ASHCROFT: Well, I just think people ought to be alert. Now we have had the most massive investigation in the history of America, the development of an arrest of over 600 individuals, the pursuit of additional individuals, the alert to the entirety of the law enforcement community cross America is just one of those steps.

My nephew happened to be the person kicking-off for Air Force against Navy in the football game this last weekend, and I went to watch my nephew propel the ball through the end zone, I might add, on several occasions. So I do not think that Americans should avoid sporting events or should avoid undertaking their lives in a way which is appropriate to American freedom.

If you'll listen to Osama bin Laden this last week, and it was a little bit painful to do it, but it's clear that he wants America to be intimidated away from liberty and paralyzed so that we would be fearful instead of free. I reject that, I believe the American people reject it and I believe there's reason to reject it.

We are taking very serious steps. We are using every possible avenue to disrupt, interrupt, defer, delay, impede, impair, prevent terrorism in any number of settings. And I believe we'll provide and do have a context in which America should have a heightened level of awareness, but we should be free people and we should act with an understanding of that liberty.


QUESTION: When you talk about the infrastructure protection, are you encouraging all the large companies that ship various materials to just not ship anything for a while, either via rail or on the roads?

ASHCROFT: I think it's pretty clear that we're not encouraging all companies not to ship. We're asking companies to develop security plans which are reasonable and which provide a way to secure cargo and facilities but not to cease operations. We want secure operations. We do not want to cease operations.

We want people to have preparations and not panic. We want people to be alert, but we do not want people to forfeit the liberties which America stands for.

And I believe that we can do that together with the kind of unified effort -- and I have to commend -- the last time I believe we met in this room, there were a lot of local law enforcement individuals, and we have gotten great cooperation from individuals at every part of the law enforcement ladder. And I think, together with the American people, we have an opportunity to win this war effectively and not lose our liberties in the process.

Thank you very much.

BROWN: Attorney General John Ashcroft briefing, talking about at the beginning a heightened sense of security around the country. We take these things seriously, he said: 600 arrests so far, or detainments, 200 more.

But clearly, the focus came at the end, in the last third of the briefing, when he talked about the second anthrax case that has been diagnosed in Florida. You'll recall that last week a man died of anthrax. This is a very rare occurrence, inhaled anthrax. Talk more about that in a second.

Now a second case developed. At least about two hours ago, when I looked at this, the person involved was asymptomatic. They hadn't seen the symptoms yet, but they had diagnosed and he is in hospital and they are working on him.

Let's focus on this question for a bit, and then a lot has happened over the last couple of hours, and then we'll step back and take a look at where we are.

But let's deal with the anthrax question first.

Kelli Arena at the Justice Department. Kelli, very different from what Tommy Thompson was talking about, the Health and Human Services secretary, last week: an isolated case.

We had heard Mr. Ashcroft say this might develop into a criminal investigation. We don't know, we do not if it's related terrorism. But last week, they certainly would not even have gone that far. Fair enough?

KELLI ARENA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fair enough, Aaron. Actually, I just got off the phone with an FBI official, who said that the investigation is proceeding as if it were a criminal investigation, just in case it turns out to be one, which means that all of the evidence is being held and secured and put together properly, so that if they do need to proceed in a criminal way, they can do that.

But I will tell you, Aaron, what the attorney general said seems to be something we've been hearing repeatedly. The investigators just do not know enough at this point to point to either criminal intent or even possibly terrorist intent. They are trying to figure out what, where this came from, if it was naturally occurring, if it was planted there.

We are told that there was the bacteria found on one of the computer keyboards, which would seem to point to something that was planted there, and not something that was naturally occurring.

But again, the building does remain sealed. The investigation continues.

A lot more disturbing than it was last week when, you know, it was one person, an isolated case. And then I do know that there were several hospitals and doctors in Florida who have many patients coming in to be tested. Of course, the first thing that you realize are flu- like symptoms.

So -- but from an investigative standpoint, Aaron, they just do not know.

BROWN: Kelli, hang on a second. Sometimes flu-like symptoms are, in fact, the flu, and that's the danger here, is that in all of what we're about to talk about, we need to keep a kind of sense of calmness about it. An investigation is going on. A building has been sealed. People are understandably worried. Coincidence is a little hard to work with in these sorts of matters. But nevertheless, we don't have a lot of facts to go on.

But we do know in Florida, we have this second case. CNN's Mark Potter is outside a clinic in Florida now, I believe, Mark. People are being tested. This is an almost unimaginable kind of moment a month ago, but not at all unimaginable now.

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And we had a very unusual scene here. It began early this morning. It continues now.

We are at a Palm Beach County Health Department clinic in Delray Beach. And more than 400 people have been brought here today for testing. They are employees and visitors of a company called American Media Incorporated. And you can see they are still lined up here.

Earlier this morning, when it was raining, they were lined up here: the line much longer than it is now. They are being tested through nasal swabs for the possibility that they were exposed to anthrax. In addition, they are being given antibiotics. The first dosage they are being given is for 15 days. But we are told by health officials that they will likely have to take antibiotics for 60 days.

This Includes anyone who worked in the building or who visited the building from August 1st on. That includes children of the workers, who may have gone to work with their parents, perhaps on a weekend. Now, the reason that American Media Incorporated is so important -- and this is a company that publishing tabloid newspapers, such as "The Sun," "The Globe," "The Star," "The National Inquirer." The reason this company is so important is because, for one, this is the company where Robert Stevens worked. He was the photo editor who died last week of anthrax.

It's also a company whereas Kelli said trace elements of anthrax have been found inside the building. The CEO said that it was found in Robert Steven's work area, and at least a half does dozen workers have told us that they were told that it was on the keys of his computer. And it's also the building where now another employee, a 73-year-old man, who has been identified as Ernesto Blanco, identified by other co-workers and by his stepson, has been found to have been exposed to anthrax.

Doctors say he does not have the disease, but they found anthrax spores in his nasal passages.

Now, this was a man who last week, according to his stepson, was taken to an intensive care unit in Miami and was diagnosed with what appeared to be pneumonia-like symptoms. He was released and then taken back over the weekend, and there investigators took the swab and they found the anthrax spores.

They were quite interested in him. They were spreading out their investigation, looking in hospitals, and when they saw that he worked at American Media, they became very interested.

But they make the point that he has been exposed to the disease. He does not have it. It does not necessarily mean that he will get anthrax.


JEAN MALECKI, PALM BEACH COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT: We do know it has to be a certain dosage, the dose of the number of spores to be inhaled to be able to come down with this disease. So, yes, it's very likely that you could have one spore or two spores and not come down with this disease.

But we're being very prudent today in saying that we need to be extremely cautious and not remiss, and take precautions to protect the health of these individuals.


POTTER: Now the building itself, American Media Incorporated, has been shut down, has been sealed. The CEO says the company is cooperating fully with the FBI agents and the investigators from the CDC who are there, trying to figure out how the anthrax trace was found in the building, and how one employee contracted anthrax, how one -- at least one was exposed to it.

I want to show you, Aaron, something very briefly here if we can. This is a questionnaire that's being given to all of the employee who are brought here to the building. They are asked to fill this out. They're asked a number of questions, including did you -- did you go near the mail room? Did you spend time in the photo library? Did you spend time in the text library? And the last question they are asked is this: Since September 11th, 2001, have you noticed any unusual occurrences at work?

Aaron, back to you.

BROWN: I'm sorry. The date on that again was what? On what date did you start noticing...

POTTER: The date of the attacks, September 11, 2001. And a question, have you noticed any unusual occurrences at work since then?

BROWN: OK. Just one quick question briefly please: The people in back of you who are lining up for the test. Is there panic there? Is there -- how would you characterize this?

POTTER: Well, I wouldn't say panic is the right word. It's not the right word. But they are concerned about it. A number of people have said that they are -- they're scared, they're worried. This is a frightening thing to be called in here and tested and given antibiotics. And they're feeling it. This is an unpleasant experience, and they can't go to work and their building has been shut down. And they're -- they're worried.

BROWN: Yeah, I would think they would, at the very least, be worried. Mark, thank you. We appreciate that. And we'll check back with you.

We need to fill in some blanks here, it seems to me.

If we can get Dr. Sanjay Gupta up, I've got a couple of questions real quick, doctor. Let me start with this one. The fact that we now suspect -- we don't know -- that this was contracted not outside, because all of our conversations last week centered around how you might come into contact with anthrax outside, but that it apparently was contracted inside a building, what does that tell you?

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Aaron, there's a couple of interesting things about that. One is that they certainly found samples of anthrax inside. I think -- I want to be careful here, because we still don't know when either one of these gentlemen were actually exposed to anthrax. We do know anthrax is inside the building, we do know that they were exposed. But at what time frame and exactly where is still a bit of a question.

The other thing, Aaron, that is, I think, is important is Secretary Ashcroft was sort of alluding to the fact that there's different strains of this type of bacteria. And I think that's an important point, sort of leading into your question as well.

The bacteria that the first gentleman actually was treated with was penicillin. And the reason that's important is because the bacteria that easily responds to penicillin is one that is more likely to be occurring naturally and not manufactured. We've heard so much about Ciprofloxacin, and I'll try to make this point precisely. But typically, the manufactured bacteria are those ones that are only responsive to Ciprofloxacin. The naturally occurring ones can be treated the penicillin. The first gentleman was treated with penicillin, Aaron.

BROWN: Well, and the first gentleman, as I recall the sequence here, began his treatment so late in the process that it wasn't -- it obviously wasn't helpful. But nothing may have been helpful at that point. So yes, we have these two strains, but do we know yet which one we're dealing with?

GUPTA: We really -- I guess we don't know for sure. We certainly don't know about the second gentleman, for sure. The CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, guidelines typically with anthrax is to treat with Ciprofloxacin, as you heard, for up to 60 days, and that's because that will work in either case, either in the case of manufactured bacteria or naturally occurring bacteria.

But again, I heard reports from the doctors down in Florida from the first gentleman that they were actually treating with penicillin because they found the bacteria was sensitive to penicillin, which again may provide some fodder for the argument that this was in fact naturally occurring still. Confusing.

BROWN: OK. Now, so inside-outside, I want to bring you back to the inside-outside, because you have to explain to me, I guess, how naturally occurring anthrax can occur inside a building if in fact it can.

GUPTA: It's a very difficult question, Aaron, and I don't think I have the answer to that.

BROWN: Fair enough. Walk away from it.

Let me ask you something else then. Let's do -- you talked about it's not clear yet when precisely the two individuals, Mr. Stevens and Mr. Blanco, were exposed. We know some things about the incubation period. So don't we have -- can't we at least give a sense of when these exposures must have taken place based on when people become symptomatic, or in the case of Mr. Blanco, who as far as I know is asymptomatic?

GUPTA: Yeah, Aaron, it's a good question: Two to seven days is typically the incubation period, typically. Some spores may take up to 60 days to germinate, meaning to actually release some of the toxins that cause the symptoms. That's unusual: Two to seven days is more usual.

The second gentleman, as you mentioned, was actually swabbed when he was in the ICU. As you know, Aaron, as you said several times, the symptoms of anthrax can be very vague. I'm not sure why this gentleman was in the ICU if he was -- we keep calling him asymptomatic, but it certainly (UNINTELLIGIBLE) an ICU for pneumonia- like symptoms.

I imagine the doctors and the health care workers down there are trying to sort out if there is any link between the two.

BROWN: Sanjay, thank you. Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Obviously, we'll have some business to do today. Thank you. It's good to have you around.




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