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Anthrax Found in Facility That Sends Mail to President; Bioterror Campaign Gets Closer to White House

Aired October 24, 2001 - 05:00   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.
LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Anthrax found in a facility that sends mail to the president. The bioterror campaign gets closer to the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't have anthrax.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Bush goes on the offensive as the search for suspects intensifies.

HARRIS: Collateral damage or unacceptable deaths -- the bombing raids in Afghanistan take a mounting toll on the population. And signs of hope in Ireland this morning. The IRA may actually be on the verge of getting rid of its weapons.

Good morning. And it's Wednesday. It is October 24,2001. And from the CNN Center in Atlanta, I am Leon Harris.

KAGAN: Good morning. Good to see you.

HARRIS: Good morning.

KAGAN: We don't say bright, we just say early.

HARRIS: There you go.

KAGAN: Very good.

Good morning, everyone. I'm Daryn Kagan. Thanks for joining us.

Let's go ahead and take a look at our latest developments this morning.

HARRIS: All right, here's what we've got for you this morning. It is official, anthrax caused the deaths of two Washington area postal workers and two of their coworkers are hospitalized in serious condition with inhaled anthrax.

KAGAN: A letter addressed to the Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle raises some suspicions at a Maryland post office. The FBI says the letter has some similarities to the anthrax tainted letter that showed up in Daschle's Washington office last week. But the new letter still must be tested for anthrax.

HARRIS: And in Afghanistan, war planes pounded Taliban troop and tank positions along front lines with the Northern Alliance. The Pentagon says it's moving ahead with its plans to continue fighting through the winter.

KAGAN: Let's go ahead and get started with the latest on anthrax. The bacteria has reached the facility that processes mail for the White House. That office, keep in mind, is a very long way from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but no anthrax has been detected inside the White House itself.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: I don't have anthrax and the -- it's hard for Americans to imagine how evil the people are who are doing this. We're having to adjust our thinking. We're a kind nation. We're a compassionate nation. We're a nation of strong values and we value life. And we're learning people in this world, you know, want to terrorize our country by trying to take life. They won't succeed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KAGAN: The president says that changes are on the way to the postal service. He has authorized $175 million in federal funding to put more safety measures in place at the nation's post offices.

Let's go ahead and take a look at some of the latest numbers concerning anthrax cases in the U.S. There are 12 total confirmed anthrax infections. Three people have died from inhaled anthrax. Three more are hospitalized with anthrax spores in their lungs. Six other people are being treated for skin anthrax. And there are 32 confirmed cases of anthrax exposure.

Investigators are tracing some common threads in the anthrax cases.

Our Susan Candiotti explains that for now the trail begins and it ends at the post office.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's the common denominator linking deadly anthrax hits in Washington, and now getting dangerously close to mail heading to the White House. The Brentwood postal facility is now officially a crime scene two postal workers dead from inhaling anthrax there. Two other postal workers are being treated for inhaling the bacteria.

DEBORAH WILLHITE, U.S. POSTAL SERVICE: The enemy is whoever sent this letter because they have now murdered two people and two people are seriously ill. CANDIOTTI: Health officials also investigating four more suspected cases, and on top of that, another dozen in the Washington area that may be infected. And now that White House connection. An automated machine at this naval base, a letter slitter that opens White House mail, gets a positive hit for anthrax. Mail going through there first passes through the Brentwood facility.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: All employees at the site are being swabbed and tested. Mailroom employees at the White House will also be swabbed and tested and environmental sampling throughout the White House has all shown negative.

CANDIOTTI: The Justice Department now releasing copies of three anthrax letters, all postmarked Trenton, New Jersey. Two sent to NBC's Tom Brokaw and "The New York Post'' are identical, are in the same handwriting, contain the same threatening message and are labeled "9-11'', the day of the attacks, although postmarked one week later. They read, "This is next. Take penicillin now. Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great.''

The letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, mailed about three weeks, later is similar. "You cannot stop us. We have this anthrax. You die now. Are you afraid? Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great.''

In New Jersey, where those letters were processed, investigators expanding their search, but leads still going nowhere. Authorities spreading out to a neighboring county, where at least one of the letters may have originated. The FBI waiting for anthrax tests on an infected mail carrier's backpack, truck and three blue mailboxes along her route. She did not, however, retrieve mail from them.

(on camera): Sources say leads are still coming in, including tips about people dropping off suspicious mail. So far, a dead end. Very much alive, the question everyone wants answered, who did it and why?

Susan Candiotti, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HARRIS: Well, the U.S. Capitol Building gets the all clear. Final tests show the building is free from anthrax contamination and exposure. Meanwhile, one of six congressional office buildings is going to be reopening today. Senate leaders say that they will open the Russell Building. But House leaders aren't reopening any of their buildings yet. Anthrax tests on those sites have not been wrapped up yet.

Another letter addressed to Senator Tom Daschle is raising some suspicions now. The FBI says a letter found at a mail processing facility in Gaithersburg, Maryland has some similarities to the anthrax laced letter sent to Daschle earlier this month. Officials say that there were also differences, so this could be just a copycat case. The letter was not opened and the FBI is testing it right now. Now, with so many cases of anthrax tainted letters turning up in the mail, many people are wondering what can be done to kill the bacteria before it causes harm.

CNN's Natalie Pawelski talked to some experts about that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NATALIE PAWELSKI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This may be the best way to make sure mail is anthrax free -- irradiate it. Some companies already use radiation to kill bacteria in food and on medical equipment and scientists say that after some research into the exact dosages and durations needed, radiation could be used to kill anthrax bacteria, too.

MELVIN FIRST, HARVARD SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: It would certainly work on anthrax and it has the advantage of great penetrating power so that it could penetrate envelopes and packages.

PAWELSKI: Machines like this convert electricity into a form of radiation that can penetrate cardboard boxes or paper envelopes, pretty much anything except some metals. One company claims it could render mail anthrax free for about a penny apiece.

The down side, the beam ruins electronics and as of now it's not approved for use with some types of food. It's important that the room where the work is done is properly shielded so workers are not exposed to radiation. For those receiving the mail, there would be no radioactive residue.

MICHAEL DOYLE, UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA: Just like you have when you go through the airport and put your luggage through the X-ray machine, these x-rays go right through the food or the mail or your suitcase and when you take it off the belt, it doesn't glow in the dark and it's not radioactive.

PAWELSKI: Another kind of irradiation, gamma rays from a radioactive source like cobalt, now used to kill bacteria on food, could also kill anthrax. One complication, this process could demagnetize credit cards sent through the mail. Another thing researchers say can kill anthrax, very high heat and steam for sustained periods of time. The anthrax spores might not survive, but then neither might your mail.

FIRST: You'd end up with a big blob of pulp. That doesn't sound like a very practical method to me.

PAWELSKI (on camera): Experts say one future option might be to focus on detection rather than destruction. But researchers say right now there are no machines that can reliably alert people in the post office or anywhere else to the presence of anthrax.

Natalie Pawelski, CNN, Atlanta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HARRIS: That really sounds like some promising technology there.

For more safety precautions on handling mail, just log onto our Web site at cnn.com and click on anthrax in depth there. Of course, the AOL keyword there is CNN.

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