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Postmaster General Testifies Before Congressional Committee

Aired October 30, 2001 - 10:05   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Jason Carroll, I apologize for the interruption, but John Potter, the postmaster general, as anticipated, speaking before members of the Senate in Washington.


JOHN POTTER, POSTMASTER GENERAL: ... had arrived through the mail. Looking back, it's hard to believe all that's transpired in the last 18 days. We took a proactive stance in terms of educating our employees and the public. I caution that employees, the public, and companies and organizations, that they needed to handle their mail carefully, that they found something out of the ordinary, that they needed to respond appropriately to law enforcement authorities.

Based on information we had, I stressed that that this was a time when common sense and caution was needed. And that the incidence of anthrax-laden letters appeared to be very targeted and very few in number.

On Monday, October 15, with postal inspectors already working with the FBI, I asked chief inspector Weaver to put together a Washington-based taskforce, that included our union and management association leaders. On a daily basis, we shared and discussed the latest information, what steps we should take, and what were the right things to do. We brought in advisers from the CDC and others to share information with the unions. Our labor leaders's comments were valuable , and carried equal weight with everyone around the table. But the facts were sketchy.

To that point, the only confirmed anthrax had been in Florida and NBC New York. On that day, Monday the 15th, employees in Senator Daschle's office opened the letter that had been laced with anthrax. Then, things began to accelerate almost by the hour. It was clear that the Daschle letter went through our Brentwood facility in Washington.

On Wednesday, testing of 28 Capitol Hill employees came back positive. We were consulting seeking the best experts we could find, but it was also clear that the mail and the nation were facing a threat that it had never encountered before.

We continued to operate under the theory that what had been sent was transiting our system in well-sealed envelopes. All along, the Postal Service operated on the principal of open disclosure. I knew that would be critical protect our employees and the public in developing solutions.

Knowing that the Daschle letter came through our Brentwood facility, and after consulting with our unions, we decided to test the Brentwood facility as a precaution. The preliminary tests on Thursday, October 18th came back negative, we felt good about that. Although a secondary more comprehensive laboratory examination would take another 48 hours. To that time, we had no indication that Brentwood was contaminated. Also, on Thursday, October 18th, we joined with the Justice Department to ask the American public for help by offering a million-dollar reward.

It was on the 18th that one of our letter carriers in Trenton was diagnosed with cutaneous anthrax. The Trenton and West Trenton facilities were closed for testing, and CDC and the FBI moved in.

Yes, we had discussed with CDC whether or not employees should be tested, but all indications and the best experts said no need.

Unfortunately, and how I and others wish we had known, it was Friday, October 19th, when our first Washington employee would be hospitalized with flulike symptoms. Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, the 21st, we learned of the first case of an employee with inhalation anthrax.

Brentwood was immediately closed. As a precaution, we also closed the Baltimore-Washington processing facility. We were operating in good faith, trying to make the right decisions, based on the facts at hand and the advice we were receiving from the experts.

In fact, out of those discussions, local health authorities began screening employees and providing them with antibiotics that weekend.

By Monday, we were making every effort to track down all of our Brentwood employees, even those on vacation.

Last week, I said "This not a time for finger-pointing." I underscore that again. The mail and the nation have never experienced anything like this.

Where are we today? First of all, the situation remains fluid. Late yesterday afternoon, we learned that two additional facilities in Washington D.C. were contaminated, and we closed them pending remediation. In addition, trace amounts of anthrax have been found in our plant in West Palm Beach. That remediation is occurring right now.

For 18 days, we have been working to enhance the safety of our employees, and their workplaces. At the same time, we want to keep mail moving to the nations; businesses and households.

Let me share some actions that we have taken. We scheduled 200 facilities nationwide to be tested. That's in addition to those facilities in the immediate area of the anthrax attacks. We purchased 4.8 million masks, 88 million gloves for our employees. We changed operational maintenance procedures to reduce the chance of any bioagents being blown around the workplace. We are using new cleaning products that kill anthrax bacteria. We have redoubled efforts to communicate to employees, through standup talks, videos and postcards directed to their homes to reinforce our awareness message. We had also had medical doctors speak to our employees at the worksite, on the precautions they needed to take concerning anthrax, and offered employees nationwide counseling services.

During the last week, we mobilized every resource to get employees screened, tested and antibiotics distributed. We are purchasing machines and technology to sanitize the mail. Unfortunately, we cannot deploy all machines tomorrow. In the interim, we are using existing machines, and private sector companies to sanitize targeted mail. The anthrax attacks were targeted, and we are responding in a targeted way.

We are increasing our education efforts with the public. Postcards alerting every address in America were delivered last week. In all our dealings with our customers, we stress the need for vigilance. We modified our web site to provide the latest information on anthrax. In sum, we are focused on getting the message out.

I might also add here that the cooperation and coordination between and among all the federal agencies involved has gotten increasingly stronger as each day has gone by. Governor Ridge has been instrumental in building bridges and making things happen. He also has been working to assure that all federal agencies work in a focused way, to ensure that the equipment and technology we plan to use is effective.

These attacks on our employees, the nation and the mail are unprecedented. They have hurt us financially. The economic slowdown in 2001 already had an impact. Then the tragedy of the attack on September 11 again stunned the economy. The results have been reflected in reduced revenue and mail volumes.

Although we are still assessing the economic impact of the anthrax attack, I can tell you, it's sizable. We will provide information to the committee when we have a tally.

As I am sure you will agree, protecting America's freedom by ensuring the safety and the integrity of the mail is at the core of the Postal Service's mission. Our 800,000 postal employees are using everything they have learned and doing everything humanly possible to keep the mail safe and moving.

I cannot say enough how proud I am of the cooperation and the spirit I have seen in our employees and postal customers. They recognize the terrorists have launched an attack on one of America's fundamental institution, the nations's post offices. We are determined not to let the terrorists stop us.

This concludes my prepared statement, Mr. Chairman.


We will be questioning now, with the commission, my colleagues will do six-minute rounds, but we will give a few extra minutes to other than the four of us, who had the chance to make opening statements of other members, wish to use that to make an opening statement. The dates here are as you stated them, in the sequence of events, that on October 12, CDC confirmed that the letter sent to NBC had anthrax in it. A short while after that, we learned that anthrax from a letter sent to Senator Daschle had contaminated one of the Senate mail rooms, and so was capable of contaminating other locations.

Yet, the Brentwood facility continued to operate, and now it appears that there is contamination throughout government mail rooms in the D.C. area.

My question is, given -- and this is the question obviously that others are asking, including postal workers. Given the known anthrax exposure at postal facilities, why didn't particularly New Jersey and then in Florida, why didn't the service take a more aggressive approach toward conducting testing for anthrax as a precautionary measure, both to protect its employees and the general public?

POTTER: Throughout this is the process -- we started with earliest letters at NBC -- the advice we were given throughout was that these envelopes were well sealed. They had been taped, and it gave the appearance that the intent of the sender was that it was to effect the recipient, the person who the mail was addressed to. It wasn't until later on that we found out that the size of the spores, the anthrax spores, were one micron in size, and that they had the ability to penetrate paper.

So we went from a situation where we had sealed containers, and we had no known cases of anthrax, either in Florida or in New York. That is Postal Service, did not, and so, the theory that we were operating under, seemed logical, made sense, that given the amount of protection tape that was point the envelopes, that they were contained and that they were not contaminating, until they were opened at the destination.

LIEBERMAN: So the initial presumption was that to become ill, you would have to have opened the package, as occurred -- or a letter, as occurred at the NBC offices, or in fact in Senator Daschle's office.

POTTER: Yes. That was the initial assumption, and it was a thought that by opening the envelope, and that was the theory behind what happened in Florida, the gentleman that were affected opened the envelope, and that dust came out of the envelope and went into their sinuses.

LIEBERMAN: On what basis did you reach that conclusion? I understand it has certain common sense to it based on normal experience, although as we found out, as you indicate, as time went on, the anthrax was refined to such a small level that that common sense didn't make sense in the end. But was that the judgment that you made within the Postal Service based on the advice of your internal counsel, or was it based on advice you got from others, and if so, who were they? POTTER: It based on the advice that we had gotten from those had seen the envelopes. We never -- we don't have possession of the envelopes?

LIEBERMAN: In other words, those who had seen them at NBC or here at the center.

POTTER: Right, so it was the law enforcement authorities, the FBI, our postal inspectors, as well as the health authorities, the CDC and others.

LIEBERMAN: Let me ask you that question. Who did you call? Obviously you were confronted with a problem you didn't anticipate, and it is a health problem, and the postal service is obviously not a health service organization itself. Who do you turn to at a moment like that? Who did you turn to?

POTTER: At a moment like that, I turned to the secretary, Tommy Ridge -- excuse me, Tommy Thompson.

LIEBERMAN: Health and human services.

POTTER: Secretary of health and human services, to ask for his help, because it was an unknown entity to us. We sought out his assistance.

LIEBERMAN: What did he tell you?

POTTER: Basically, he put us in touch with all of the experts, you know, at his disposal.

LIEBERMAN: Who were they? I mean...

POTTER: Attorney general, the CDC, and many others, who came to our aid to help us analyze this problem and give us advice.

LIEBERMAN: And they counseled you, at that time, explicitly that there was their best judgment that your employees would have to have opened the package to have been to be exposed to anthrax?

POTTER: They had counseled me that there was there was a remote chance that as the envelopes transited our system, that they would have contaminated our system. Again, based on the fact that they were well sealed. Early on, there were a couple of letters that later turned out to be hoaxes that had granular substances in them.

If you recall, at NBC, there was a focus on a letter of September 25th that was originally thought to be the letter that caused the contamination. That later on proved not to be the case, and there was a granular substance in that letter. We subsequently found out it was a September 18th letter.

So again, it was based on the facts that were available to them, the facts that were available to me, and we relied on the advice of everybody, and I think without a doubt in my mind that there was a truly a good faith effort on the part of all. As was stated earlier, people just did not know that much about anthrax.

LIEBERMAN: Let me ask you this question, to the best of your knowledge, I presume Mr. Morris and Mr. Curseen, two postal workers who died of inhalation anthrax, were not exposed to packages or letters with anthrax that were opened, is that correct?

POTTER: To best of my knowledge, that is the case, yes.

LIEBERMAN: So is the presumption now that the terrorists who were sending the anthrax through the mail were operating at such a level of sophistication that they had not only refined the anthrax to the -- one micron, which is not visible to the eye, but that they had put openings in the envelopes or package coverings that were slightly larger than the one micron, but large enough when handled to let some of the anthrax spores out?

POTTER: Mr. Chairman, I think it was a matter of using different paper. I don't know that there was an attempt on the part of the terrorists, and we will never know until we find that person and find out what their motives were, but I think there was a different type of paper. That paper was more porous than the previous paper, and allowed the anthrax to move through the paper. That is my assumption. I don't consider myself an expert, but that appears to be the case.

LIEBERMAN: OK. My time is up. Thank you.

Senator Thompson.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON (R), TENNESSEE: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

Thank you, Mr. Potter.

I was looking at the timelines here, and of course some of the criticism that everybody around here is rightfully sensitive to is whether or not there has been some kind of a double standard. And I was looking at the time lines for Senate in particular, and our reaction, and yours, and according to my recollection and information, the Daschle letters were opened up on the 15th, October the 15th; 28 employees tested positive for exposure on the 17th, and we closed the offices on the 18th.

So, and what I found out and I just a realized just recently, was that for three days, governmental affairs staff employees were walking around that same area up there, some of these folks behind us here, on the same floor, on the sixth floor of the Hart building, where the Daschle letter was opened, for three days before we closed the buildings.

So I -- it goes to make the point that we were all thinking that it took some kind of not only could something not seep out of an envelope, but you had to have some kind of apparently direct contact with there, being same room or something with it, in order for it to cause you problem. I mean, seemingly that was the information we were all operating on at the time. When I look at your -- so we reacted what, three days later, and then only after several people turned up positive for exposure. And when I was looking at your timeline, and you had a private company come in, and of course you had benefit, if you want to call that, of the Daschle episode. We should say that. But on 18th, you had a private company come in and test Brentwood, and they received no positive indications at that time, is that right?

POTTER: We had two separate tests done, senator. We had comprehensive testing done by an outside company, and then we had the Fairfax County Hazardous Material Group to come in, and Fairfax County right across the river, to come in, and test our facility on a quick test. That quick test proved negative. I have since come to learn that there are no false positives with a quick test, but there are a lot of false negatives.

LIEBERMAN: And that happened on the 18th.

POTTER: That happened on the 18th. We had ordered those tests on the 17th, though. Once we became aware that there might be -- what we learned over this process was the science starts with, where did the contamination occur? And if we think about what happened in Boca Raton, it appears that only the people who touched the envelope were affected, because no other employee in AMI, to my knowledge, was tested positive for spores. So the science that was...

HEMMER: The things we are all learning now about anthrax today. The Postmaster General John Potter appearing before a select number of Senate members on Capitol Hill, at one time saying, we made a good- faith effort, people just did not know that much about anthrax. This amid criticism in some quarters, in New York and also in Southern Florida, about whether or not the post office took the -- into consideration the condition of workers in various parts of the country, that letters containing anthrax passed through.

Let's get to Capitol Hill, where Jonathan Karl is also watching and listening. And Jonathan, what is likely out of this meeting today. Is this just a this first hearing that we can anticipate regarding post office? More to come, or not.

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, I think it's going to be first of many, Bill. As a matter of fact, Joe Lieberman, who is the chairman of this committee that is holding first hearing on issue, has talked about the possibility of starting a formal board of inquiry to look into exactly what went wrong. Lieberman insisting that he does not want to point fingers here, but he wants to go through what happened so that same mistakes won't be made again. His first question you heard to the postmaster general was the most important question here, which is, how is that it the post office did not test earlier, take a more aggressive approach toward testing its facilities once they knew what was happening here with Daschle letter.

If you remember, when Daschle's letter was opened two weeks ago yesterday, they immediately found out that not only was Daschle's office contaminated, but a mail room here on the Capitol , in next building over, the Dirksen building, was also contaminated. so Lieberman wondering, why if we knew we had a situation where mail rooms were being contaminated, did we not go further down the chain and see -- test the Brentwood facility and the various other facilities. Obviously, if we had done that, the implication is here, those two postal workers would not have died, because we would have found out about the problem and we would have given those people precautionary medication.

Now there has also been a very serious question raised up here about unequal treatment between postal workers, on one hand, and senators and staff up here. And you also heard from Fred Thompson, Republican on committee, pointing out, that there may have been some unequal treatment, perhaps, but there was also a sense that people really didn't know what was going on here. In fact, senators and staffers were kept in that hart building on the same floor of Daschle's office, the sixth floor, for a full three days after they knew that 28 people had been exposed. So Thompson pointing out that it wasn't just postal workers kept possibly at harm's way, but also senators and staff.

HEMMER: All right, Jonathan, thank you. As you say, if there are more hearings, we will watch them. Jonathan Karl on Capitol Hill here.

We also want to continue this discussion now from New York City. A short time ago, while we were listening to John Potter talk, the mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, came out met reporters once again -- he had done this yesterday -- to announce that a 61-year-old woman from the Bronx, he said in very serious condition, believed to be infected with inhalation anthrax, and there are others as well.

Here is the mayor from a short time ago.


MYR. RUDY GIULIANI, NEW YORK CITY: She developed first symptoms on Thursday, chills and muscle ache. She worked on Thursday and Friday. She was at work on Friday, although reportedly ill on Friday, her coworkers say. And then on Sunday, late in the afternoon, early evening, she started to get very serious symptoms, and late in the evening on Sunday, she checked herself into Lennox Hill hospital, where she was in very serious condition, and then -- they eventually put her on a respirator, tests were taken, and then yesterday, it was determined from -- first from microscopic examination, of the specimens that were taken, that it looked like anthrax, and then a PCR test came back late yesterday evening positive for inhalational anthrax, but the test was a preliminary test. We won't have further results until later today, although we are proceeding on assumption that it is anthrax, and are told that we should proceed that way.

So as a precaution, we began last night interviewing all the personnel at hospital, the people that showed up this morning, were taken to another site, where they all could be interviewed. It is about 300 or more people, there. They are being interviewed for investigatory purposes, to try to find out location, of anything that might have caused this. And secondly, they are being interviewed from point of view of making sure that they are given proper prophylaxis and that they are tested and given antibiotics, and protected in the best way that we can.


HEMMER: All right, the mayor in New York City, a short time ago in New York, giving the latest on what's happening there. The hospital to which he was referring is the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital. We are told that the testing that he was talking about on the employees there should come back later this afternoon, possibly more results then. The hospital closed today, and so far, samples from inside have come back negative. No indication of an anthrax letter that location either. So in total the mystery there in New York continues. This would be the first confirmed case of inhalation anthrax in New York City.




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