- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 13, 2001

The FBI has expanded a criminal investigation into the discovery of anthrax in Florida to include the latest case the infection of an aide to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw at the network's New York offices.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said no evidence has been found to link the cases at the two sites, but the FBI is coordinating its efforts in both cases to "bring their full investigative resources to bear."
The expanded probe comes in the wake of a highly unusual public warning Thursday by the FBI, telling an already jittery public that law enforcement has been placed on the "highest alert" for possible new terrorist strikes in this country and against U.S. interests overseas and asking citizens to report suspicious activity.
U.S. health officials yesterday also ordered a heightened state of alert in the face of possible biological attacks, with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson warning the public to be wary of suspicious letters and packages.
An unnamed NBC employee was found to have skin anthrax in tests conducted after she opened a letter Sept. 25 containing a powdery substance. The 38-year-old woman later developed a rash and fever.
New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said the woman, an assistant for Mr. Brokaw on "NBC Nightly News," tested positive for cutaneous anthrax after handling the letter. The mayor said she had been tested twice already and found to be negative for anthrax, but a later biopsy proved positive for the milder form of the disease.
Mr. Giuliani said the woman has responded well to treatment with the antibiotic Cipro since Oct. 1 and was expected to make a full recovery. The skin form of the disease is rarely lethal, unlike the inhaled type, which led to the death of a man exposed in the Florida case.
An NBC official later said the letter had been addressed to Mr. Brokaw.
The incident is being investigated as a criminal matter, although the FBI said yesterday there was no evidence to link the New York discovery to the Florida anthrax cases or to terrorist groups.
"People should not overreact to this," Mr. Giuliani said. "One piece of good news is that if anybody else was going to be affected, it would have happened by now."
As a precaution, several areas of the NBC offices in Rockefeller Center were sealed off to allow health officials to make sure no anthrax spores remained in the area, the mayor said.
Mr. Ashcroft said that although anthrax is "not contagious and is eminently treatable if detected early," he said people should not open suspicious mail and should not open or shake unknown packages; rather, they should leave the area and call police.
Also yesterday, a third-floor newsroom at the New York Times was evacuated after a letter containing a mysterious powder was received by reporter Judith Miller, co-author of the book "Germ: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War." Tests for radioactive or chemical substances later proved negative.
The letters to NBC and the New York Times both were postmarked in St. Petersburg, Fla., the FBI said, and included similar handwriting. CBS, ABC, Time, Newsweek and the Associated Press offices in New York temporarily halted mail delivery, while CNN closed mailrooms in New York, Washington and Atlanta.
The State Department temporarily shut down the building's ventilation system after a worker found a suspicious white substance on the sixth floor.
Although the FBI has not described specific targets of concern, Mr. Ashcroft yesterday called the threat "real." He said the FBI alert should "promote caution, not incite alarm" and that all possible measures were being taken to detect and prevent future attacks.
In an interview last night on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS, Vice President Richard B. Cheney said that although there was no direct link between the terrorists and the anthrax finds, officials are concerned about the possibility.
"Are they related? We don't know. We don't have enough evidence to be able to pin down that kind of connection. But, on the other hand, these kinds of activities that we saw in Florida, now perhaps in New York, we have to be suspicious," he said on the program.
Mr. Cheney said Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on America, has over the years tried to acquire weapons of mass destruction, both biological and chemical, and has trained his terrorists in their use.
"We have not completed the investigation, and maybe it's coincidence, but I must say I'm a skeptic," he said. "I think the only responsible thing for us to do is proceed on the basis that it could be linked."
State and local police agencies have restricted the movement of trucks around public buildings in response to the FBI alert and concerns about truck bombers.
In the District, Maryland and Virginia, police have stopped more than 1,000 trucks during the past several days to inspect cargos and manifests. Officers also have increased inspections of trucks hauling hazardous materials.
In the District, commercial truck traffic was banned along sections of Constitution and Independence avenues next to the Capitol and congressional office buildings. U.S. Capitol Police are patrolling a 40-square-block area around the Capitol.
In the anthrax scare, Mr. Ashcroft said investigators have not established the source of the bacteria finds in New York or at the Boca Raton, Fla., offices of American Media Inc., which publishes several supermarket tabloids.
In Florida, Robert Stevens, a 63-year-old photo editor, died Oct. 5. Testing positive for the bacteria were mailroom employees Ernesto Blanco, 73, and Stephanie Dailey, 35. Neither person has developed the disease.
Federal authorities said anthrax tests on 965 persons who had been in the building had found no further infections, although a few tests were still pending.
Anthrax is a bacterial disease spread by spores and generally confined to sheep, cattle, horses, goats and pigs. Humans can catch the disease but cannot spread it among themselves.
Spores can be stored in dry form indefinitely, then released into the air through detonation or spray. As spores, anthrax would appear as a pink powder. Its most deadly form, as an aerosol, is odorless and colorless.
In a related matter, Faisal Michael Salmi of Tempe, Ariz., was indicted for making false statements to the FBI in its investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks. The Justice Department said Mr. Salmi lied when he told investigators he did not know Hani Hanjour, one of the hijackers aboard the American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon.
Mr. Ashcroft said Mr. Salmi, now in custody in New York, will be returned to Phoenix to face the charges. The indictment was handed down Thursday and was unsealed yesterday.
"Lying or attempting to conceal information from federal investigators will not be tolerated," he said. "We will spare no legal means to identify, locate and incapacitate terrorists and those who aid and abet their criminal activity."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide