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Capitol Briefing on Ricin Scare

Aired February 3, 2004 - 14:37   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Live to Capitol Hill. The Senate Gallery specifically where we are about to see this news conference begin. We've been telling you about it, this ricin scare.
Just to bring you up to date, in a mailroom in the Dirksen Senate Office building was found some powder where they conducted upwards of nine tests now. The vast majority of those tests, six or seven of them, have come out positive for ricin.

Now ricin is a derivative of the castor bean, which if you are of a certain generation, you could link to a very distasteful remedy for a sore tummy, castor oil. But ricin when used in a specific way can be extremely deadly, primarily if injected in the skin.

Even the amount that would sit on the head of a pin can be deadly. However, being subjected to a deadly dose of ricin by inhalation is another story entirely.

What we have is the two leaders of the Senate both sides of the aisle, the Capitol Police as well as the sergeant of arms. And we expect to get an update on this investigation. Let's listen first to Senator Bill Frist.


This is a follow-up of a very brief press conference that we did last night when we announced the fact that ricin had been discovered and my personal staff -- by my personal staff in the Dirksen Senate Office Building yesterday.

Last night, confirmatory tests showed later in the night that indeed this is ricin. And today we wanted to give the follow-up to that.

First and foremost, I know everybody is very concerned, especially here in the Senate family. There were staff members involved in this mail room. And I'm happy to report everybody is doing fine, and that is very positive news. And to date, nobody has been injured.

Ricin -- we will say a little bit more about it -- is a toxin; it is a poison. It is not contagious. It has no antidote or specific treatment, which makes it an agent that is challenging to manage if there is exposure and if injury begins to occur.

The fact that we are now a full day, almost 24 hours after the time of exposure, and based on what we know in terms of the pathophysiology of this toxin, usually injury occurs in the first four to eight hours. And so that, too, is very, very good news.

Processes are working very well. Senator Daschle and I were talking earlier. We have come a long way since anthrax, the really first bioterror assault in this country that occurred. The systems where you have intelligence working with the Capitol physician's office, working with government employees and staff members and homeland security and the bioterrorist experts together -- things are going very well, not perfectly, but very, well.

With that, let me turn to Senator Daschle. He and I have been in touch throughout -- over the last 24 hours. And then we will turn and have the people accompanying me make opening statements. And then we will be happy to answer your questions.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), MINORITY LEADER: I would begin by speaking, I know, for the entire Senate in expressing our concern for members of the staff of Senator Frist who had been exposed, but also our relief that the reports so far have been as positive as they are.

We are encouraged with the early news about their circumstances, and we are very appreciative of that information.

Secondly, as Senator Frist has noted, we have come a long way. The fact that we have filters in most of -- I guess all of the ventilation systems throughout the buildings, give us an opportunity to check almost instantaneously for the degree to which any toxic material may have spread.

I know our experts will address that with greater thoroughness. But we are very pleased that we have far more infrastructure in place as a result of decisions that have been made in recent years.

Finally, let me just say that we still don't have all the answers, so we ask everyone to be patient. This is going to take some time to put the pieces together, to assess our circumstances. I think we need to be prudent, one day at a time, as we make our decisions about management of the institution, as well as with regard to decisions we make regarding the investigation itself.

I am very pleased with the effort that has been made so far. Beginning with Senator Frist and together with those leaders who are standing behind me, I think that this matter has been handled very well. My admiration and appreciation goes to each of those responsible for the effort thus far.

FRIST: Thank you.

At the heart of what is both response, but also will be, and is, an ongoing criminal investigation at this juncture is the chief of police, Chief Terry Gainer. He will make some comments about the course of events over the last 24 hours.

And, again, I want to thank him for his tremendous leadership in coordinating much of the efforts in terms of the response. Chief?


During the past several hours since this has begun -- nearly 23 hours ago -- we have been handling this as a criminal investigation in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

So we at this moment, while testing continues, and the tests have confirmed it is ricin, we have taken the approach of, one, handling the criminal investigation from the site where this originated, talking to the individuals there and entering that facility, that room, properly to make some further determinations.

We are also in the process of working through the Capitol complex and the House and Senate office buildings to get them up and running as quickly as possible. We anticipate that over the next several days that we will send hundreds of individuals into those buildings to reclaim any mail that hadn't been opened.

So mail that was bundled and sitting on desks or envelopes that might be there that we'll be taking those and getting those out of the various office buildings in the Capitol, while we simultaneously do some scientific analysis of the floors and desks and other approaches to ensure that those buildings are safe.

I should say that all the examinations of any filters or air systems we have done since the beginning of this continue to be negative, and that is a good sign.

But the tests that were done -- the series of tests both on site and then our local facility here and at the federal facilities run by both the CDC, the military, and law enforcement officials -- have proved those positive, so we continue to work that process.

FRIST: Thank you, Chief.

Now, I'd like to turn to our sergeant at arms, Bill Pickle, who will make a comment. Again, this is an insult, an assault on the Senate side of the United States Capitol, and Bill Pickle is the sergeant at arms for the United States Senate.



I just want to echo what you've heard from our leaders and Chief Gainer.

FRIST: While we're approaching this as a criminal investigation, my concern now, or all of our concern, is the safety and welfare of not only the staff and the members, but the public up here. So we are exercising an abundance of caution in trying to get back on track. We're not going to go as fast as some people like, but we we're going to go in a very deliberate and measured manner to ensure the safety of everyone here.

We were fortunate to open the Capitol today. I think you're going to see us opening other Senate buildings here over the next week. Hopefully, we'll have them all open soon.

But again, it depends a great deal on the progress that the police department makes, as well as the support that we're getting from all our allies, both here in the legislative branch as well as the executive branch.

Dr. Eisold is here today, too. And Dr. Eisold is probably one of the experts, as you know. He was here during the anthrax scare. And this body is -- I hate to say it this way -- but it's so much the better for what happened then. We've learned a lot. The technology has improved greatly. And I think the protocols and the processes that we've implemented here have made our chances of succeeding and doing things the right way so much better here. So maybe I can introduce Dr. Eisold now.

Thank you.


The most important message that I would like to leave you with is one of public health and safety. Providing a safety net for people potentially exposed to an inhalation dose that could make them sick is important for my clinic and all the surrounding medical establishments.

I'm working with the local health departments, the hospitals in the area and doctors in the area. Although we have no evidence that anybody has received a significant exposure to make them sick at this 12- to 24-hour mark, we remain vigilant.

And our access to the clinic is open. We certainly would encourage anybody who has a question or potentially has a symptom that might be related to some, sort of, respiratory problem -- at this time of year, the flu and colds are the most common things, so it does get a little confusing.

But I think that people should err on the caution side. And if there is a question or symptom, they should see us, see their local physician and certainly at night or something like that. If they live far away, go to an emergency room.

But it's an open door. And right now we have a window that we're looking at, probably for the next 48 to 72 hours, to see if anybody develops progressive symptoms. And right now I think we're confident that we can catch those people and treat them safely.

FRIST: Well, thank you, John. And I have with me, obviously we have the leadership of the United States Senate, the head of law enforcement here on the Capitol complex, our sergeant at arms and the attending physician.

So we'll be happy to answer questions. But let me first say our principal focus at this juncture is the safety of the staff, of the employees, of people in the community.

Although anthrax is a very different agent than ricin, all of us in this community lived through that. And we know the impact it can have in terms of terror, in terms of making all of us feel less secure, in terms of affecting a community directly. And we have seen the range of terror all the way through to death caused by a biological agent which was directed at the United States Senate, individuals in the United States Senate, and had an impact that none of us foresaw at that juncture.

I do ask for continued patience, respect for the systems that we do have in place with the recognition that, first and foremost, is that safety of all of the members of this community -- not just people who work here, but the extended community.

With that, we will take questions. Let's go real quick.

QUESTION: Can you describe the quality of this ricin and how it would have been disbursed, and how lethal it would have been had it been dispersed in the way that it was intended to be dispersed?

FRIST: Yes, ricin is a toxin. It is a poison. It comes from the castor bean. The castor bean itself is the same bean that people make castor oil from. People work in castor-oil-making factories and they never get sick from it.

On the other hand, if you take the castor bean and you pulverize it and make it into a powder, it can be made into a form that can be inhaled.

FRIST: I will say that never, to best of my knowledge, has anybody died from inhalation of a derivative of the castor bean. But we know that in animal models, it is deadly. And it can be very progressive.

The deaths that have been reported in the past have been from intravenous use or parenteral use directly into the blood -- skin -- beneath the skin, the famous case in 1976 in Bulgaria.

Now, we don't know what the nature of this is. We do know -- and it's been written by many of you -- that it was a powder. The characterization of that powder as to how well it could be aerosolized in the air itself has not been determined. Those studies are under way.

One of the advantages we have is that within minutes, we had these tests being performed. And those tests will be coming back over the next several days.

In terms of aerosolization or that type of spread, we do know that the filters, the HEPA filters, the N95 filters that Senator Daschle mentioned that room are all negative. And, therefore, we believe that it was contained to the area itself. QUESTION: What kind of package was the ricin contained in? I'm assuming it's been isolated. And was it passed through the U.S. postal system? And if it was, was it radiated prior to arriving here at the Capitol?

FRIST: I will ask the chief to respond to both the irradiation part and how -- where it came through, because I don't have those facts.

I will say that powder was observed in an area where letters had been opened, and that's the extent of the observation to date. The criminal investigation is under way. And whether it came out of one letter, several letters or any letters has not yet been determined. We will know that. It has not been associated with a particular envelope as of yet, so questions like what did the envelope look like, where did it come from -- all of that is premature. We don't know the answer.

Chief, you want to comment about the radiation?

GAINER: Mail that would come into the Capitol would be radiated but it's important to point out that, as the Senator just indicated, we don't know that that's how this was delivered. It clearly was found in a mail room.

GAINER: There were letters nearby. Those letters and the materials that would be used by the mail clerk have all been seized. They're in the custody of the Capitol police. And we are working through those now with the federal authorities.

As that's going on, we are quite naturally following the stream of mail, both through the United States mail system and as it works its way into the Capitol complex.

So executive branch authorities are working the U.S. postal system approach to this. Our authorities, along with the FBI and some of our scientists, are looking at the mail complex that goes on, on the Capitol, as well as how it's delivered to the Capitol.

QUESTION: Chief, if I may just follow up on that then. Is it safe to assume that the envelope, or package which contained the ricin has not been isolated and it's not yet being tested (OFF-MIKE)

GAINER: The room has been isolated. The material in there has been isolated. And some of the material that was there when we went in some 20 hours ago has been seized. But there hasn't been an analysis of that which we seized and what else was in the room.

So that's all an ongoing process that's going to have to continue. But anything that was in and around that room that we know of has been contained and isolated and is either locked in that room or in the evidence containers that we have.

QUESTION: Are you still waiting for more definitive test results, or have you gotten the test results? GAINER: No. Definitive test results will be coming back, I would assume, daily -- coming back. Definitive test results -- again, it used to be we would be dealing with all the numbers. The point is by several tests, including polymerase chain reaction, PCR, this has been identified to be ricin. So it's a definitive test.

There are many other tests. And that is being sent for many other tests. That is defined.

How active -- because people say is it active or not -- preliminary tests are that it is active. How active? How active, we don't know at this juncture.

In terms of the size, shape, aerosolization, how sticky it is, additives, all that'll come back over weeks.

QUESTION: Exactly how many people had to be decontaminated? And is there any concern that some of the people who were on the fourth floor left before they could be quarantined and spread ricin, perhaps, around the Washington, D.C., area?

FRIST: There were 16 people last night who were around throughout the evening and were decontaminated.

FRIST: In the immediate vicinity of the room, there were probably, we don't know exactly, but seven or eight people. Somebody knows; I just don't know that number.

We generally are very comfortable that everybody has been identified who was at risk, and appropriate procedures were carried throughout. So there's been no concern expressed that there are other people who might be involved.

QUESTION: You have mentioned your concern with the safety of the Senate and Capitol Hill community and all those who touch mail. The postal service and the Senate and the House have already installed substantial security measures regarding mail. The one step that hasn't been taken is to totally sequester all mail and scan it in. Are you going to take that step, given that ricin (OFF-MIKE)

FRIST: You know, it's been amazing over the last couple of years in terms of the thresholds and both diagnostic, preventive, response- type systems that have been put in place. At each juncture we will always go back and look and see if there is something better, more sophisticated or newer.

We are in a world where things like ricin, that we never had to think about, we do have to think about. So I am sure that we'll go back and examine it.

QUESTION: How many days will the building be closed?

FRIST: Chief, do you want to comment just on days?

GAINER: We're putting together the teams that will enter the buildings to confiscate the mail. We estimate that will take several days. And whether it's three to five will depend on the progress that those teams make and the support of equipment.

Clearly the Homeland Security and the Department of Defense have offered us all the assets we need to smartly and scientifically go through those buildings.

So the buildings will be done in an order so that we clear one floor, then one building, and then turn that back open for use. So it will be an ongoing process.

QUESTION: Chief, is there anything in the room, any mail, any parcel that appears to be suspicious, any sort of a threat, or any of those keys that you look for?

GAINER: It's ongoing as to that, but there was nothing on first blush that would lead us to believe that there was any visible threat. But we still have a lot of investigative work to do on the things that are yet in that office and that we have confiscated from that office.

FRIST: The details of the investigation -- because people want, you know, what does the envelope look like and the details -- it's just premature to be commenting.

I mentioned the powder was found, stacks of letters that had just been opened. As to which letter was it, those 30 letters or the 30 other letters, all of that has been gathered up as evidence and will be looked at as we go forward.

Let me comment that -- because I didn't mention earlier -- the Senate's in business. We're continuing. As all of you know, we're on the floor, on the highway bill.

So the normal Senate activity will continue. It's a little bit more of a challenge with the Senate office buildings closed. But as all of you know, we continue that debate as we go forward.

QUESTION: How much has activity been disrupted? Because some (OFF-MIKE) have not been able to go to their offices. (OFF-MIKE) Will all the mail that's being confiscated be destroyed?

FRIST: How much disruption is there? The fact that senators right now, today, and I would say -- well, we don't know tomorrow, but by 5 o'clock today we'll be announcing to the senators about the plans for tomorrow.

But it's a disruption, and it's a real inconvenience. Because we've asked, for today, for senators and staff members not to go to their offices, and that's where people keep their papers.

So it is a real inconvenience, and we will get them open as soon as we can.


FRIST: Will the mail be destroyed? The decision in terms of what happens to the mail has not been made. There is, because of our past experience, a committee that has both focused on the procedures in the past who will be addressing the specifics of how that mail's handled.

QUESTION: Senator, in the anthrax case, the Hart building was close for six months or so. Is there any danger that Dirksen will be closed that long? Or is ricin somewhat less dangerous in terms of...

FRIST: We don't anticipate it being anywhere near that long. Again, it's premature. We'd like to see these buildings open up in the next several days. Again, a little bit depends on the morphology of the ricin itself, the return of the test, what is found as we go forward.

But we expect it to be days and not weeks.

QUESTION: Is ricin less dangerous than the anthrax?

FRIST: Ricin and anthrax are totally different. Ricin is not a virus, it's not a bacteria. When you think of bio, biological terrorist agents, you think of something alive.

It goes back to the irradiation question. You can irradiate certain things that are alive -- viruses, bacteria -- but what is the effect on an inert toxin or chemical itself?

FRIST: There are many, many differences. They're totally different. Don't even think of them the same way in the terms of toxicity.

The real question is whether both of them can be aerosolized, but they're totally different agents.

QUESTION: You said you were following the mail up the chain, the chain of U.S. mail. Have you completely ruled out that it could be from a FedEx or UPS package of some sort?

FRIST: I'll let the Chief comment on that.

GAINER: We haven't ruled anything out. We have a very open mind about this. So some things we can do outside the building. Some things will require us to be in the building, and we'll do many of those things simultaneously or in tandem. So we have an open mind about the source of this.

QUESTION: Chief, how do you guard against ricin?

QUESTION: Do you know how much powder there was?


GAINER: That's too specific to share.

FRIST: We'll take two more questions. We'll turn to Senator Daschle. Yes? QUESTION: Last night you called this an act of terrorism, and today you're kind of expressing that it is a criminal act. Is there a distinction to be drawn here?

FRIST: No. The question...

QUESTION: Do you think this was a terrorist act?

FRIST: No, the question is whether it's a criminal act or terrorist act. In my mind they're basically the same. They're both the same.

We know that this was sent specifically to the United States Senate, to an individual. And as I mentioned last night, because it is a poison a toxic chemical that we know is deadly, that we know there is no treatment for that, the assumption is the intent to harm.

Because of the nature of the agent, it clearly is intended to terrorize, as well, as we all feel the insecurity that we're here.

In terms of implying whether or not there's linkage to terrorist activity or al Qaeda or what's happening elsewhere in the world, it's premature in that regard.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) if you can't irradiate it? I mean, what do you do about keeping ricin out of the mail in the Capitol?

DASCHLE: Well, I think that this goes to something that both Senator Frist and I have said now on several occasions: We will never be completely invulnerable to all of the potential threats that exist out there.

What we have attempted to do over the last couple of years is to improve our defenses to find ways with which to minimize the risk. And I think to a good -- to a large extent we've been able to do a lot of that.

DASCHLE: I think the good news today is that, number one, those staff directly affected, so far, are showing no signs of ill health. Secondly, the investigation is under way, and we now have the technology, that we wouldn't have had a couple of years ago, to expedite the investigative aspects of this work.

The third point that I think is important to emphasize is that the work of government will continue. As we speak, the Senate is in session. We're debating the highway bill, and that work will go on.

Terrorists attacks, criminal acts of this kind will not stop the work of the Senate or the Congress, as we have important work to be done.

FRIST: On the procedures itself, just so people will know, the appropriate action was taken. And all of you know, because we didn't even think about three years ago, an observation was made by a Senate staff employee. As soon as that observation was made that there was a powder in a mail room, everybody was asked to leave. A phone call was made to Capitol Police. They arrived. A series of diagnostic steps were taken.

Again, it's inconveniencing in the sense that people around late at night and you wait for a test and then a more specific test and another specific test. But again, I'm quite proud of the way the system has worked from individual staff employees to the systems, the protocols that have been set in place.

QUESTION: When were you notified of this? And when were other senators notified? Some have said they found out by watching TV.

FRIST: Let's see. I was notified at about 3:15 that there was a powder observed. And then other senators, I'm not sure. You would have to talk to them to see when people were notified.

QUESTION: Senator Frist, we have videotape of a Capitol Hill Police officer being taken off the campus due to chest pains. And one uniformed officer had said it might, in fact, be related to the ricin. Do you know anything about that?

FRIST: I'll ask the chief. Again, was this somebody from today or yesterday?

QUESTION: This is from around noontime this afternoon. We have some videotape of that, and I was wondering if you could comment on that.

EISOLD: Yes. I think that this just goes along with the caution that we're exhibiting in the clinic in encouraging the patients and providers in the local community to consult us if there's any question of respiratory symptoms which, again, can be consistent with the flu or pneumonia, simple upper-respiratory infections and potentially symptoms consistent with inhaled ricin.

So we don't have any evidence yet that we have had anybody with significant symptoms, secondary to an inhalation of ricin. But we're not cavalier. And we're going to keep our eyes open. And we're going to, you know, take every case that we find that has that kind of a symptom and follow that doggedly.

QUESTION: But have you heard that the Capitol Hill Police officer was actually taken off, I mean, due to the ricin concerns?

EISOLD: I think what I would do is say that in terms of individual patients, trust us that we are following those patients?

QUESTION: Have you ruled him out?

EISOLD: And we're..

QUESTION: The police officer -- ruled him out?

EISOLD: You rule people out by following them over time. And so there is no diagnostic test for ricin ingestion, inhalation. It's consistent with so many other problems. You just have to follow the patient, don't disconnect, make access easy -- and I think you won't miss people. FRIST: We are going to go ahead and bring things to a close. Let me comment on a couple of things.

First of all, the Senate's in business. And we will continue in business, as Senator Daschle has said. And we'll continue on the highway bill.

At the same time, our focus is on the safety of our community...

O'BRIEN: All right, we have been listening to a news conference in the Senate Gallery.

That was Senator Bill Frist, who, at times, if he sounds like a doctor, that's because he is. He is Bill Frist, M.D., as well as being the Senate majority leader, his counterpart on the other side of the aisle, Tom Daschle, as well as representatives of the Capitol Police, another doctor and others there giving us the latest on the ricin investigation.

You heard it. I'm not going to repeat it all. But, essentially, a criminal probe is under way. And, thus far, no additional signs of any more powder in mail on the other side of Congress in the House. The House presses on with its business. We, of course, will keep you posted as developments warrant on all this.


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