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Senate Majority Leader Daschle Addresses Press About Anthrax- Contaminated Letter Sent to His Office

Aired October 15, 2001 - 13:18   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: To Capitol Hill, Jonathan Karl has continued to do reporting on this letter that was received in Sen. Daschle's office, the Senate majority leader.

Jon, are you there?

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We have some details about that letter, from the FBI. First of all, the letter was actually received in Daschle's office in the Hart Office Building for the Senate; that's about a block from the Capitol Building. It was received on Friday and not opened until today. It was opened today, and what we have learned is that that letter had a postmark of Trenton, New Jersey. One reason why that is potentially significant is that is, of course, the postmark on the letter send to another South Dakotan, Tom Brokow, NBC, in New York. That's something that we have learned from the FBI.

In the meantime, we are also told by a senior Republican who has oversight over security arrangements in the capital that there are security enhancements -- those are his words -- put in place -- we're actually put in place today in the capital so that letters coming in today and going forward would be safer from such threats.

But those security enhancements were not in place on Friday when this letter was received. What we don't know, Aaron, is whether those enhancements were a reaction to today's news or were those something that were already in place because of the news we've been hearing about anthrax over the last week or so.

Meanwhile, there's more activity outside that Hart Building, about a block away from here. The police have shut down the main road in front of that building, Constitution Avenue, and there are firetrucks around. We don't know exactly what the rescue personnel are doing, but there does seem to be a feeling of calm around the building. There isn't a mass exodus. People don't seem to be panicked. They seem to sense that this is an isolated incident, isolated to the sixth floor of Tom Daschle's office. Daschle's office is on two floors in that Hart Building.

The fifth floor is the main entrance. The sixth floor is where the mail room and where mail is opened and received and dealt with, in the correspondents section. The various hallways shutdown around that have also been shut down. But the main thoroughfare shutdown is shot down to all vehicle traffic.

BROWN: Jon, did the FBI give you any information what was in the letter? We know that the Microsoft, the Reno letter, contained some sort of pornography. Are they saying anything about that at all?

KARL: No further details except there was powder in the letter. That letter to Microsoft out in Reno was coming from Malaysia, so it seems to be a different situation. The Microsoft letter was a letter that had been sent out from that office of that Microsoft company to Malaysia and been sent back and had been tampered with and did have the pornography inside.

We have no such details on this, but we know that this was not something that came from Malaysia, like that letter. But his was something postmarked Trenton, New Jersey, like the letter that went to NBC.

BROWN: Maybe we will double-check this. My memory on the two New York letters -- we see Sen. Daschle coming to the microphone -- is that maybe the "New York Times" letter had a Trenton postmark on it too. In any case, there are more than 40 post office branches in Trenton. So it will make narrowing this down, which one it came down from, somewhat problematic -- they would all carry a Trenton postmark.

We see Sen. Daschle walking to the microphone now. Why don't we listen?


SEN. DASCHLE (D-SD), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: My office opened a suspicious package. We can't go into the details because this is an ongoing investigation. Just as soon as it became clear that there was a suspicious substance in the envelope, we contacted the Capitol Police and the capitol physician. I'll have more to say about our own circumstances in the office after Dan Nichols of the Capitol Police and Dr. John Isold (ph), our capitol physician, speak to the questions directly as to the letter itself.

Dan Nichols?


I'm Lieutenant Dan Nichols. I'm a spokesman with the United States Capitol Police.

As the Senator said, this morning at approximately 10:30, a letter was received in his office in the Hart Senate Office Building which contained a powdery substance. There was an exposure when the letter was opened. Following protocols, the staff who opened the letter immediately contacted U.S. Capitol Police and also contacted the attending physicians office of the Capitol.

The officers responding to the scene isolated the situation, and according to our protocols we conducted field tests. The first field test came back as positive for anthrax. In order to confirm that, we did a second field test and that field test also came back as positive for anthrax. It should be noted, though, that these are just preliminary tests. They are field tests only, and we have sent this material out to Fort Detrick, Maryland to the U.S. Army facility there for further testing, and we hope to have confirmation exactly what the material is here very shortly.

However, precaution dictates that we go ahead and proceed as if there was an exposure, and in order to protect the staff and ensure that we followed proper medical procedures, Dr. Isold (ph), the attending physician of the Capitol, sent his team over. There was isolation of the staff while we did decontamination. And I believe there have already been medical procedures undertaken as far as antibiotics.

I need to caution everyone that this is a criminal investigation now, and we're very limited in the information that we can put forward. This is not totally unexpected, though. U.S. Capitol Police has 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.

But the precautions we've taken in the past, the education campaign we have given to the staff and the members of Congress came into play today and it worked as it should. And we are taking further precautions now to screen mail and try to prevent this from occurring within the legislative branch of the government. But this is a time when prudence dictates we take all possible precautions and we educate the staff as best we can to be prepared for future incidents that may occur.

Right now, I have with me Dr. Isold (ph), who is the attending physician in the Capitol. He is going to give some information about the medical side of this and how we're treating the staff.

Dr. Isold (ph)?

DR. JOHN ISOLD (ph), ATTENDING PHYSICIAN, U.S. CAPITOL: The medical response as much as you've heard from other places in the country, responded promptly after the police had cleared the area for the medical personnel to be involved. Appropriate people were identified who potentially could have come in contact with the exposure. They have been swabbed and they will be tested now to see if they indeed do have any of the spores. In the meantime, until we can identify whether or not it truly is an exposure and if people are positive for their testing, then in the meantime we will treat them with Cipro -- again, as you have heard in other situations.

DASCHLE: I have had a conversation with my staff. I have not had a conversation yet with the person most directly involved in the incident, as that staff person is still undergoing the processing that you just heard described. I've spoken to a member of the family of the particular staff person, and there are other staff who were in the area, whose families I will be calling as well. I would say without equivocation our staff feel very confident about their circumstances, and they've been given assurances, as Dr. Isold (ph) and Mr. Nichols have just noted, that there is no immediate danger for them, given the fact that we were able to respond as quickly and as directly as we could.

So I believe that the circumstances are well under control in the office. I did contact each of the other members of leadership just to warn them that something may occur in their offices as it has in mine, and the president had called earlier today and we discussed the matter as well.

So at this point, the office is quarantined. Staff are not leaving. The office is officially closed until all of the procedures have been satisfactorily addressed.

With that, we'll take a few questions. As I say, Mr. Nichols has noted that because there is an ongoing investigation, there probably isn't as much specific information that we can provide, but we'd be happy to try to do so.

QUESTION: Senator, how do you feel about being targeted?

DASCHLE: Well first of all I'm concerned deeply for my staff, and I 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. So I'm very gratified with the rapid response made by the sergeant-at-arms, by the Capitol Police, and certainly our capitol physician.

QUESTION: Senator Daschle, can you confirm for us that the letter was from Trenton, New Jersey and did it have any kind of a letter in it?

DASCHLE: I cannot confirm any of the details, under the advisement of the Capitol Police.

QUESTION: Senator, are you confident that there were enough procedures in place before today to screen for a biological or chemical (OFF-MIKE)?

DASCHLE: I am confident that given the short notice that we've had that circumstances like this could present themselves that we were in as good a position to respond as quickly as possible. As I said just a moment ago, I am gratified with our ability to respond as rapidly and successfully as we have.

QUESTION: Mr. Daschle, how many people in your office are taking antibiotics now? And how many people came in contact with the letter?

DASCHLE: We don't know how many people came in contact with the letter. There were 40 people in my office at the time.

QUESTION: Are they all taking antibiotics? DASCHLE: I can't acknowledge that because I'm not quite sure.


DASCHLE: I'd rather not comment about any of the specifics, again under the advisement of the Capitol Police.

QUESTION: When and where did you find out the suspicious letter had arrived at your office?

DASCHLE: Well, as soon as the staff person noticed the letter, the individual involved contacted our office manager. The office manager contacted my chief of staff, Pete Rouse, and he contacted me.

QUESTION: Senator Daschle, do you think tours should be continued -- should the Capitol still be open to tourists? Should tourists still be allowed to come through the Capitol?

DASCHLE: I think we need to keep this Capitol as accessible as is possible. I don't know that we can come to any permanent conclusions about what that means at this point, but I think the emphasis ought to be that this monument to democracy is accessible to all people, even under circumstances like this.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) under way an effort to get some kind of centralized screening process in place for these things before they get to the offices?

DASCHLE: Well, the Capitol Police and the sergeant-at-arms and others are examining ways with which to enhance even further our defensive mechanisms, the operations that we now employ to prevent this kind of circumstance from occurring. But obviously, those are all under review.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) that caused you to call the other leaders? Were there additional threats in it for other members?

DASCHLE: No. I just thought that it was an obvious thing to do, given the fact that it happened in my office this morning. If it happened in my office, I just assumed that it was possible that it could happen elsewhere and I felt that they deserved to know.

I would also say, by the way, that Dr. Isold (ph) had just briefed us last week about these circumstances and about the need to take procedures. And it was in keeping with that conversation that I made the calls.

QUESTION: Senator, did you say that the person who opened the envelope is taking antibiotics?

DASCHLE: That's correct. It's just as a preventive measure.

QUESTION: Are you?

DASCHLE: I am not.

QUESTION: Have you been to your office in the Hart Building?

DASCHLE: I can't. It's quarantined and I'm unable to go.

QUESTION: Senator, do you think the exposure has extended beyond your staff because of the way mail is routed through the Capitol?

DASCHLE: I can't answer questions like that. I really don't know at this point the extent to which there may be other concerns for exposure, but we're examining those as well.

QUESTION: Is the FBI investigating this?

DASCHLE: I can't comment on that. I'm not sure it's appropriate at this point.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what about the letter was suspicious? Were there markings that were...?

DASCHLE: I can't. Again, I want to emphasize, Mr. Nichols has said that this is being treated as a criminal investigation and the specifics I think at this point if they are prematurely revealed could hamper their investigation. We don't want to do that.

QUESTION: Have you shut off mail delivery to the Senate offices?

DASCHLE: Correct.

QUESTION: All Senate offices?


QUESTION: Has the air conditioning been cut off, too?

DASCHLE: I can't comment on that.

QUESTION: Senator, what do you think the risk is here? I mean, one person has died, and since then virtually everybody else it seems as though they have recovered. What do you think the risk is from these incidents?

DASCHLE: I can't assess the risk level. I think as the president has said on many occasions, we have to be alert. We have to recognize that the risk is higher than it was a few weeks ago, but we have to live our lives. We have to conduct our business here in the Congress and across this country, and we intend to do that.

Thank you all very much.

BROWN: Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle speaking briefly here this afternoon about a letter that his office received on Friday. If I have the sequence, the package was opened at about 10:30 this morning. There was some substance inside. The first test on that substance was positive for anthrax. The second field test was also positive for anthrax. It's now been sent to a military base in Maryland for yet another test.

This is become the protocol on these sorts of things. A series of field tests are done by police when they get there, but ultimately, it needs to be confirmed elsewhere, and they're working on it.

About 40 people in his office are being treated. At least one person, though, clearly was exposed. Sen. Daschle said he called that staffer's family to express his concern. I'm concerned deeply for my entire staff, he said. He said he is angry and confident that this will be resolved. The Capitol police spokesman Lt. Nichols was saying this is a criminal investigation and this is something -- we went through this on Friday we go through it again today. These letters are out there. How many are out there we don't know.

Jonathan Karl is working the story. Jonathan reported a short time ago that an FBI source said Trenton, New Jersey was the postmark on the Daschle letter -- correct?

KARL: Daschle, as you heard -- and the capital police not confirming those details -- confirming virtually nothing about the actual incident, saying that it is under investigation. This is a criminal investigation. But it was also interesting that the senator said that his office over in the Hart Building is quarantined. So he actually can't go over there himself. The people that are inside are not being let out -- that a precaution being undertaken.

He didn't know if the 40 people in that office are actually taking antibiotics as a precaution, Daschle was saying, that was directly exposed to this. That person, he did confirm, is taking those antibiotics.

But another thing that Daschle said is one of the first things he did when he learned about this was to call the other leadership offices around the capital, to warn them that they could potential be a target as well. We have heard a number of reports and rumors since this happened about other offices that have all turned out negative, none on them, Aaron, saying that they have similar situations in their offices at this point.

BROWN: Hang on a second, Jon, if you will.

Apparently, New Jersey postal inspectors are going to address some of this in 10 minutes or so. We will be reporting what they say.

Back to Jon Karl if we can.

Sen. Daschle said he talked to the leadership. He didn't what the reaction was. Have you been in the capital since then? Do you have any sense of increased security that at least is visible?

KARL: Well, the major thing, and it's very visible, is the security around the Hart Building. They have shut down part of Constitution Avenue in front of the building, and the whole building has been surrounded as a precaution. But the sense was, and our producer spent some time right outside of Daschle's office, on the fifth floor -- right now you can't get to that point -- when this first happened, and she reported a real sense of calm.

We have evacuations out of the Capitol building. We had one false evacuation where everybody had to run out. And there is a sense of heightened security here. But there is also a little bit of numbness to the false reports and rumors. This is a reminder that they need to pay attention to all rumors and all reports because the threat is out there and is real. But there is not a sense of panic around me at all -- Aaron.

BROWN: That sense of odd routine can be dangerous if all of us aren't clear and careful in times like this.

John, I'll let you get back to work here.




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