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America Strikes Back: Minority Leader Gephardt Discusses Capitol Hill Anthrax With Reporters

Aired October 23, 2001 - 08:17   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's quickly go to the White House, here Minority Leader Dick Gephardt is talking with reporters after breakfasting at the White House.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), MINORITY LEADER: ... and feel that there is being good progress made in the situation there. We have got to keep working at it, trying to find the people who perpetuated what happened on September the 11th.

QUESTION: Leader Gephardt, is the federal government not cautious enough? Did those postal workers who worked in the facility where tat letter that went to Sen. Daschle's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) been tested right away and given antibiotics right away? After all, Capitol Hill staffers (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

GEPHARDT: I've been saying for some time that we're dealing with a sophisticated product, and I don't think we can do anything but err on the side of caution. No one foresaw, unfortunately, that probably the machinery that is in that post office would tend to kick this stuff out of the envelopes.

Again this is weapons-grade material. It is serious material. And we've got to err on the side of caution. And we will continue to try to do that.

QUESTION: Mr. Gephardt, they told the bureau today it wasn't weapons grade. Are they getting any new information?

GEPHARDT: No, I think we've got to stop pursing words and trying to be anything other than accurate about what this is. This is highly sophisticated material. It is small in size, and it aerosolizes, so you've got be careful in the way it can be handled.

On the other hand, it has to get in the air, and you have to be exposed to a lot of it. What no one foresaw, I think, in this case, was that you're talking about a machine that puts pressure on the envelopes, and there's lots of holes and other things in envelopes, and the machine, I think, was the critical factor. No one foresaw that.

QUESTION: Did they give you any new information today? GEPHARDT: No.

And all this has to be analyzed, and we need to get the information out to people so we can all be careful and safe.

QUESTION: Should these workers have been tested, using the same level of precaution that was used in the Capitol and the office buildings?

GEPHARDT: No one understood the effect of this machine. That's my view. I don't think this was a mistake of intention. But again, you're looking at material that is very dangerous and tough to deal with, so that's where we are.

QUESTION: Given your description of what would be (UNINTELLIGIBLE), conversations with the president this morning, can it be concluded now that this was an act of organized terror that can have some link that wasn't known before to September 11?

GEPHARDT: I don't think there's a way to prove that, but I think we all suspect that. I think it's clear that these are people that are both up to no good and people who know what they're doing.

Now, given all of that, it is a very crude way of trying to injure people. But it has been effective now in a number of cases, and it's not to be taken lightly.

We can't be in fear of it. We can't change everything that we do, but we've got to be careful. We've got to be sensible. We've got to be cautious. We've got to be safe. That's what we've been trying to say for the last week, and I think that's the best course for us to follow.

ZAHN: You've been listening to Minority Leader Dick Gephardt talk a little bit about of what he talked about with the president this morning at the White House. If there has been any confusion about the quality of anthrax that was laced in the letter sent to Sen. Daschle's office, he all but put to rest the rumors. He called it a sophisticated product: small in size, and powerful when aerosolized.

Let's quickly go to Kate Snow, who is standing by on Capitol Hill.

Kate, one of the things I was struck, because early this morning, I interviewed the deputy postmaster general -- he didn't make any reference to this machine that Dick Gephardt just made. This is a machine, apparently, that puts pressure on mail when it's processing mail, and he sees this as a critical factor in two of those postal officers, perhaps, contacting anthrax and dying. Did that strike you as well.

KATE SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely, Paula. He is talking, I think, about the machine at the Brentwood postal facility, which is the central Washington, D.C., facility where we now have those cases developing. Not only that, but as you mentioned, he defined the nature of the anthrax once again. Dick Gephardt last week had done this, had called it weapons-grade material. He just repeated that again. We should point out that is in contrast with what other authorities have been saying; notably Sen. Daschle has not said that. Governor Tom Ridge said just yesterday that he wouldn't want to use those terms.

So there is still some discrepancy in the language here being used to describe this, but I think he was very clear in saying it's small, it's particalized, it can go into the air, and no one foresaw that that machine in that mail room pressing down on the envelopes might have been a source of problem.

The House will be in session later on this afternoon, the Senate due in here just about an hour and fifteen minutes from now. The U.S. Capitol Building itself will be open today, in the center of your screen there, in white. But all of the buildings you see in red and blue -- the House and Senate office buildings -- are going to be shut down again today. Of the 20,000 people or so who work on Capitol Hill, just a fraction of them are going to be given office space at two facilities less than 1 mile away from the U.S. Capitol.

That's going to allow them to continue with environmental tests. Over the last several days, teams have been going into various buildings on Capitol Hill, all of them dressed in full protective gear. That is protocol for these environmental teams as they go on environmental sweeps into the buildings. They've been testing, looking for traces of anthrax. But it takes some time to get back these samples and run these tests, so that's why they have decided to keep these buildings shut down for one more day.

So far, authorities saying the definitive results show no new signs of anthrax contamination.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LT. DAN NICHOLS, U.S. CAPITOL POLICE: I am pleased to announce that to date, we have no new positive environmental swabs taken from any of the House or Senate office buildings or the United States Capitol. That certainly is encouraging news.

With regard to the nasal swabbing, Dr. Oswald (ph) informs me that after approximately 5,000 nasal swab tests have been conducted, the number of positives remains at 28.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW: There is one question mark, though, Paula: While authorities have said for days that the U.S. Capitol appears clean -- and that's why the Capitol Building is open this morning -- there is a question about one particular room, several sources telling CNN that three positive hits for anthrax were found preliminarily in that room.

Authorities are refusing to confirm that, saying they only want to talk about the final result. But that is a bit of a question mark, whether that room, perhaps, has some problem -- just one room -- inside the U.S. Capitol -- Paula.

ZAHN: Wow! And how long will it be for the final tests to come back?

SNOW: They say 24 to 36 hours -- and it's unclear to us when the last tests were taken in that particular room.

One other note about that room, Paula. It's the room where employees from Daschle's office were told to take some of their clothing that they wore on that day when the letter was opened. So that may be part of the problem.

ZAHN: Kate Snow, thanks so much.

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