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Suspicious Letters Sent to President, Senator; FBI, Secret Service Investigate Letters; Man Questioned By Capitol Police

Aired April 17, 2013 - 11:30   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Back here in Boston, the next street behind John and myself if Boylston Street. That is where the bombing happened on Monday afternoon. And we just noticed there is obviously a huge security presence, and there is still crime scene tape up. Police is the most complex crime scene they've ever seen because of the size. There was group, a dozen or two men in white suits looking at forensics on the scene. The debris is still out on the ground. We'll get more on that investigation but we want to talk Washington.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, there is breaking news out of Washington. Just in to us, Brianna Keilar, at the White House, reporting to us there was a suspicious letter addressed to President Obama, picked up at a mail facility outside of the White House. This is significant because this letter, we're told, bears similarity to another letter addressed to Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi. That letter tested positive with traces of ricin, an extremely deadly poison. When ingested, just a little drop can kill you. That was yesterday. We now know a second letter, addressed to President Obama that we're told bears some similarities to that ricin letter has shown up in a mail facility outside the White House. We'll bring you any details as they happen.

Of course, we've awaiting a press conference at the White House, the daily briefing from White House press secretary, Jay Carney. Now that briefing carries, I think, extra interest.

BALDWIN: It is a tenuous time across the country. But the bombings in Boston affect all of us. You think of your safety. We're worried about safety, worried about your loved ones at big public events.

BERMAN: You think about a concert, a sporting event, the inauguration, anything. Or it could be something you may not have thought of before, just going about your daily life until now.

CNN's Miguel Marquez reports on the security challenges and nightmares we're all facing.



MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When it comes to security at big events -- (CHEERING)

MARQUEZ: -- despite the number of people attending, each event is a different nightmare.

TOM FUENTES, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: If you have something life the Super Bowl or soccer, you have the majority of the crowd confined in a spot of some sport.

MARQUEZ: Places like Dodger Stadium, easier to protect. Vigilance, security increased since Boston, more thorough bag checks, more police presence.

But in public venues, mass crowds not separated by stadium walls, security headaches multiply.

Organizers for this weekend's London Marathon are recessing their security for its 35,000 runners and tens of thousands of fans lining the route.


MARQUEZ: It's the same problem in Temple, Arizona, at the Pat Tillman Run.

NOAH JOHNSON, COMMANDER, TEMPLE, ARIZONA POLICE: It's extremely challenging because it's not a secure environment, we can't put fences around it, can't put an officer every two feet, and we rely on all eyes out there.

MARQUEZ: With so many groups out there, so many large events and soft targets --


MARQUEZ: -- regardless of the event, the best security is knowing of the threat before the event occurs. That means intelligence and lots of cameras, electronic surveillance, and more law enforcement.

FUENTES: I think the public, since 9/11, the public has said, we'll live with that, we'll go ahead and accept that that's the new word we live in.


MARQUEZ: Identified who carried out the Boston bombing and why will help security officials everywhere, but nowhere will it change the threat to large public events.


BALDWIN: That was Miguel Marquez.

From soft targets, like the president of the United States, we're learning more about this letter send to the president. Of course, letters don't just go straight to the White House. They go to this mass mail facility where they're checked for precisely these purposes. And now this letter, as we learned, is very, very similar to a ricin- laced letter set to a Mississippi Senator this week.

Our White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is live.

Brianna, we're awaiting this press conference with Jay Carney.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, what I can tell you is that according to the street service on Tuesday, a letter addressed to the president, that contained a suspicious substance, was intercepted at an off sight mail facility. If there is something suspicious or dangerous in it, it can be screened by personnel. That it can be certainly checked. The scientific testing can be done, and it can be guarantee to be safe before it comes to the White House. So at this remote facility, there was a letter and a law enforcement sources telling us it's very similar to that sent to Senator Wicker. It initially tested positive for ricin. It's not always fatal, but it can be. It's not as dangerous as anthrax, but it is dangerous.

We're certainly asking questions of White House press secretary, Jay Carney, here in a few minutes. Right now, the Secret Service is and handling all of the questions about this, so it's unclear exactly what the press secretary will be able to provide us when we do ask questions.

BALDWIN: OK, Brianna Keilar, thank you.

As soon as we see Jay Carney on the screen, we'll take it live.

BERMAN: This story developing on several fronts right now.

We'll get straight to Dana Bash, who is on Capitol Hill with more news happening now -- Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I was reporting the fact that there is a suspicious package in one of the officer buildings of the Senate, the Hart Building. There is now one in the building where I am right now, the Russell Building. The hallway that's hard to see from here, it's closed off, they have HAZMAT teams in there and they're looking to see whether or not a package that an officer here is calling suspicious contains anything they need to check out, and that they need to do further evacuations for. We're allowed to stay here as an indicator that at least initially they're not that worried because we're really not that far from where this office is. We believe it's in Richard Shelby of Alabama. And it is not unusual to hear about packages on Capitol Hill. Anything that looks out of the ordinary should be taken very, very seriously. We find these things very frequently, between the state of where things are right now, Boston, the letters that appear to contain ricin, that were sent a Senator, and maybe the president, everything has a different feel as you can imagine right now -- Brooke and John?

BERMAN: All right, Dana Bash, keep your eyes peeled. Keep us updated as to what you see.

Right now we want to go to Tom Fuentes. He is a former assistant director of the FBI. He has key insight.

Tom, the first question has to be this. Monday, bombs in the Boston Marathon behind us. Two days later, a letter with ricin shows up addressed to Senator Roger Wicker, of Mississippi. Now the news we're getting now, that a similar suspicious letter addressed to President Obama. It seems like an awfully big coincidence.

FUENTES: It appears to be. And as of now, there is no indication from the first letter to the Senator that it was related to the Boston attack. That's the preliminary indication that letter is still being examined for ricin at the lab, and they have not made the final impact for approving. All mail to these agencies go through these facilities. They have machines that open up the letters, when you get it, the envelope is mutilated, it will have stains, packages are x- rayed and tested. So this is standard procedure for the congressional mail, for FBI which has its own zip code at head quarters, and for the White House. And suspicious letters like that do happen on a regular basis. When something happens like the Boston attack, there is such a heightened concern, every little thing can be heightened to maybe it's a big thing, and it might be. So they have to look at that. They're still examining the letter to the Senator. The suspicious letter at the White House --


BALDWIN: Forgive me for interjecting, Tom. Forgive me for interjecting. We're getting new information. Tom, just stand by.

I want to go straight to Joe Johns, who has been talking to folks at the FBI.

John, what are you learning?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CHIEF JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: The Federal Bureau of Investigation is expected to release a statement shortly that I'm told will relate to an investigation of multiple letters with suspected ricin. I think they're talking about two letters. I asked if this had to do with a letter to the White House, and what I was told is that field tests have been conducted now on more than one letter. And I was told that that letter, the substance in that letter, was being forwarded to a laboratory for more testing. And also told that conclusive results could take to a week to determine positively if ricin is included. So we're waiting for the FBI to release a statement on the situation.

And I think it's important to say that we do know that ricin is the type of substance that can be manufactured relatively simply. It's from the castor plant. So there is -- authorities want to be very careful to make sure what they've got is the active substance ricin.

Back to you, Brooke.

BALDWIN: We will be waiting for that statement from the FBI here.

Joe Johns, thank you so much. BERMAN: We're joined now by Juliette Kayyem, who is a former Homeland Security official in the Obama administration. She was an advisor to the governor of Massachusetts, professor at Harvard, also a columnist at the "Boston Globe."

We're getting information from Joe Johns that the FBI is about to release a statement that they're now investigating multiple suspicion letters. We're reporting a letter addressed to President Obama has been picked up near the White House. There is a lot of concern right now in the wake of what happened in Boston right now. What can you tell us about what's going on.

JULIETTE KAYYEM, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY OFFICIAL: For viewers, this is familiar in some ways because there is a lot of suspicious packages. Everyone is on high alert, and that's appropriate. If there is one letter, it's very common for other people to want to get engaged with the criminal schism. So if you remember, 9/11 was followed by anthrax. They were not connected. Two very different groups of people. Someone may have saw this happen, want today get involved, and started releasing letters. We don't know what this is, so I like to wait because we don't know when they were delivered. Were they delivered after or before the Boston bombing, and could they be related.

BALDWIN: That's a good point, because Brianna Keilar, at the White House saying, yes, it is hauntingly similar, but it was days after Boston. And anthrax was leaked after 9/11. But a great point.

KAYYEM: Letters don't arrive at the White House, right? It's not like the Obamas are opening their own letters. This was an off-site facility, the Secret Service, they run security for the first family. They were never in any threat. But it was part of a being on high alert, and let the facts drive who we're investigating and why. Who knows if they're the same person or someone, one activity grows the other. Remember, after Oklahoma City, there was a lot of similar instances. Crazy people like attention and they follow up on attention, and that may be what this is.

BERMAN: Do the two investigations affect each other as they're going on simultaneously?

KAYYEM: One is resources. But now because it's different locations, you'll have different heads. If they think they're related, there may be a move to create structure that there is a top person that everyone relays information to.

It's too early right now. The Senate letters and the White House letter -- it's just unclear you know at this stage whether -- how long they have been there. Letters take a while. One could imagine if there was any suspicion if they're related, there will be a task force created only because you want to make sure how (INAUDIBLE).

BERMAN: Juliette, stand by --


BALDWIN: And your point on being on high alert, especially with the letters, we also have Dana Bash reporting.

Dana, I want to come to you at the Rotunda. You have been reporting on a suspicious package in the Rotunda and the Senate office building, the Hart Building. What more are you learning.

BASH: We should change the way we're describing it based on information we got. What is suspicious here in the Russell Office Building? It is a suspicious envelope, not a suspicious package, that is the way it is being described. And that, of course, raises all kinds of questions since, of course, it was an envelope that was received or got as far as the off site mail facility and was going towards Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi. So this is closed off. There is a hallway right down here that is closed off, but they're not that worried they have evacuated the entire building or even the entire floor. So that should put things in context. They're looking into whatever it is they think might be in this office, which we believe to be the office of Senator Shelby.

Meanwhile, in the Hart building, there is what we believe to be a suspicious package. That was not completely evacuated either. Some of the lower floors were, and they're not letting people in, and those on the upper floors, at this point, are asked to stay in their offices. It is a modified lockdown. Not being evacuated either.

Again, I think it's very important to keep reminding our viewers, that's it's not unusual to get suspicious packages and envelopes that come to offices, things left by tourists raise alarms all the time here given the context of what we saw in Boston, and what looks like ricin being sent to one Senator and maybe even the president of the United States. That's why it is a heightened state of alert and atmosphere here. Law enforcement officials insist there is no known connection between what's going on here with the ricin and Boston, but at this early stage, I think most people would say they don't really know because they don't know who is responsible for either.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's a very, very edgy situation. As you know, Dana, we don't know if this is just coincidental, we don't know if there is a connection, but people are nervous. Understandably so. They're nervous here in Boston, and they're nervous in Washington where you are.

The president of the United States getting ready to come to Boston tomorrow for this interfaith memorial service that will take place here tomorrow morning. So we're watching all of this very, very carefully.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington. Once again, we want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

We're watching important developments unfold here in Boston in the aftermath of the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Also, in Washington suspicious letters arriving at a U.S. Senators office. And now a similarly suspicious letter addressed to the president of the United States. At the same time, there are evacuations up on Capitol Hill because of some perhaps unrelated or related activities.

Let me go to our White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar.

Brianna, walk us through for viewers who might be tuning in just now what exactly we know about this suspicious letter addressed to the president?

KEILAR: This letter, Wolf, went to an offsite mail facility. As you see on Capitol Hill, the White House does the same thing when it comes to mail. You send a letter to the president, it doesn't go obviously directly to the White House for precaution. It goes to an offsite mail facility at an undisclosed location where it is screened, scientifically tested to make sure it is safe so that it can come here to the White House. According to the Secret Service, because this is a mail facility run by the Secret Service I've learned talking to a source there, this letter showed up on Tuesday or it was identified on Tuesday. And it's located not near the White House I'm told though, Wolf, but certainly the location we're not aware of exactly. And we're told this, according to a law enforcement official, that this letter addressed to President Obama is very similar to that of Senator Wicker. We're not being told that it is connected to that of Senator Wicker, but certainly that is the question that is raised by this, Wolf. We know there are certain things we learn from the capitol police about the Wicker letter that, for instance, it had a postmark from Memphis, Tennessee. There was no return sender. I've asked if those were the marks on this letter sent to President Obama. We don't know.

And the other important thing to point out is according to the Secret Service, this letter addressed to President Obama has a suspicious substance in it. A suspicious substance. That's what it's being called. Whereas, the Wicker letter, Wolf, we're told tested preliminarily for ricin. Preliminarily. Obviously, that means there will be more tests being done, we heard that from our Joe Johns. But certainly I think because of the temporal proximity to the Boston bombings if they are connected to the Boston bombings, we don't know that. We're not being told that they are, Wolf. But I think because you saw the bombings on Monday and now these letters coming on Tuesday that that is a question that a lot of people have. There's some similarity here. And we've heard our Dana Bash talking about this. She certainly went through this following 9/11 with the anthrax attacks that happened. Some letters of which went to Capitol Hill -- or one letter went to Capitol Hill. And there was -- that was something that happened weeks after 9/11. And in this case, though, we're talking about just today. So it raises all of these questions about whether there may be connections or whether it would be just really almost unbelievable coincidence at this point, Wolf.

This is a very serious deadly substance, ricin is, when you're talking about the Wicker letter if the final designation is that that is what was in the letter. So this is, you know, very serious concern certainly for people working in these offsite mail facilities where they process these letters -- Wolf?

BLITZER: And it's a deadly poison, ricin, we should point out as well.

Brianna, standby. Dana Bash is up on Capitol Hill with the latest.

What about the evacuations of the office building and other buildings on Capitol Hill. Precisely, Dana, what do we know? Why are people being told to evacuate those buildings?

BASH: Well, we don't know the answer to that yet. In terms of where I am in the Russell Office Building, there still is a lockdown in a hallway right down the hall from where I am. I'm on the third floor. This is called the Russell Rotunda. Obviously, we're allowed to be here. So they are concerned about whatever it is that's down there. And we are told that it is a suspicious envelope, not a package. They've phrased it carefully a suspicious envelope. So there's one particular hallway that is closed off to the public. I'm not sure whether or not the people in the offices down there were told to leave or not because I can't get down there to see. So that's where things stand right now. There is a hazmat truck down at the foot of this building trying to check things out. Separately as we were reporting earlier, the heart office building, which is not too far from here also is in kind of a state of lockdown because of at least one suspicious package. They have not fully evacuated that building either. The first floor they did tell people to leave, at least to gather at one point and then leave at another point. Others who are on the higher floors were not asked to leave. At least they were told to stay in their offices. That's what we know right now. Again, it bears repeating, this is important, it is not unusual for me and others to be walking through the halls at the capitol complex and be told no you can't go here because of a suspicious package. It happens unfortunately pretty frequently since 9/11 because the capitol police are so diligent about making sure that anything that is looks like it is left accidentally, maybe it's not an accident. But we don't report it because it tends to be nothing. We tend to wait. This obviously is a different situation because of the context that we're in, what happened where you are in Boston and the fact here in Washington that a United States Senator got a piece of mail with what appears to be at least initial tests show it was positive for the poison ricin.

BLITZER: It's very eerie, Dana. I know you remember it vividly. You lived through that period in 2001 right after 9/11 when there were those anthrax-laced letters that were sent to members of Congress, sent to the news media, sent to others and some of those letters proved to be deadly in the process. And now another poison, ricin, believed to have been sent to one Senator, maybe another lawmaker or even others and maybe even to the president of the United States. So we don't know if there's any connection to that. We don't know if there's any connection to what occurred here at the Boston Marathon on Monday, but it is very, very eerie and scary when you think about it.

Standby for a moment, Dana.

Brianna is standing by at the White House.

We're waiting for a briefing over at the White House. We'll, of course, have all of the latest information. One of our other capitol correspondents, Lisa Desjardins, is getting more information.

Lisa, what are picking up?

LISA DESJARDINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): I'm in the Hart Office Building right now on the third floor and I'm told by multiple capitol police officers that they do have a man in custody here in this area that they are questioning and who they have I.D.ed. That he raised suspicion in part with the content of his backpack which police are telling me they have. In that backpack were some sealed envelopes. They also say this man crossed their suspicion radar by the way he acted, the way he responded to their questions. They felt he did not respond in a normal way. I'm also told that he made some deliveries at least in this office building. And it's possible this is the same person connected to the letter at the Russell Office Building. I'm told those packages were accepted against protocol, which is why capitol police looked for this man, found him. And now I'm told by two officers here have him in a position where they are questioning him and they have I.D.ed him.

BLITZER: I want to be precise, you're in the Hart Office Building, you go in there every day, I've done it many, many times. Of course, our Capitol Hill correspondent does it. You have to go through screenings. So what you're saying is they found someone inside with a suspicious backpack, some suspicious envelopes who actually is inside. That means he went through the screening process. Is that right?


DESJARDINS: Yes, Wolf, can you hear me?


DESJARDINS: I'm being told the backpack was cleared because the envelopes were sealed. And I certainly have brought letters in myself that police do not open. And they do open bigger things like wrapped presents or something, but these letters were sealed inside a backpack that he was allowed to proceed. That there was nothing that set off the metal detectors or any other of the indicators that they have at security and that's why he was allowed to enter the building.

BLITZER: Do they normally have -- sometimes I see dogs who sniff packages for visitor who is are coming in at various Senate or House of Representatives office buildings, certainly the main capitol. Do you often see dogs sniffing packages and backpacks of visitors coming into the buildings?

DESJARDINS: I see the dogs most often when there are large trucks coming on to the complex and they must be swept by dogs before they come onto capitol grounds. Often you'll see some of the visitor entrances especially.