- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Congressional leaders ordered an unprecedented shutdown of the House today after more than two dozen people in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office tested positive for exposure to a highly concentrated form of anthrax.

“We will not let this stop the work of the Senate,'' Mr. Daschle said at a news conference outside the Capitol. He said 31 people have had “positive nasal swabs,'' including two Capitol police officers. Despite the vow to remain open, Mr. Daschle said senators “will excuse our staff'' so that three Senate office buildings can be tested.

Mr. Daschle made his announcement a short while after Speaker Dennis Hastert said that anthrax had been found in the Senate's mailroom.

“To ensure safety we thought it best to do a complete sweep, an environmental sweep,'' he said, adding that House members and staff would be sent home at day's end, until at least Tuesday.

Mr. Hastert also told reporters that anthrax had gotten “into the ventilation system.'' But a short while later, Scott Lillibridge, a bioterrorism expert at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the only known evidence of anthrax was found in Mr. Daschle's office across the street from the Capitol and in the Senate's mailroom in a second office building.

“There is absolutely no evidence of infection at this point,'' Mr. Daschle said. “All of those who had had this positive nasal swab have been on antibiotics for some time and the good news is that everyone is OK.''

Mr. Daschle, flanked by Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott, sought to ease concerns that had been raised by word of the positive test results and by Mr. Hastert's announcement that House members and staff would be sent home at day's end to allow for environmental testing.

“There will be a vote this afternoon,'' Mr. Daschle said. “We will be in session and have a vote or votes tomorrow.''

There was cause for concern elsewhere around the country. In New York, Gov. George Pataki announced that a test conducted in his midtown Manhattan office showed the presence of anthrax. Officials said the suite of offices had been closed for further testing and decontamination.

Mr. Pataki said one test did indicate “the probability of anthrax,'' adding that “the odds are very high'' that subsequent testing will confirm the presence of anthrax.

Senate leaders were accompanied by numerous federal officials, several of whom stepped before the microphone to announce developments in the most reassuring manner possible.

“This particular strain of anthrax is sensitive to all antibiotics,'' said Maj. Gen. John Parker, speaking on behalf of the Ft. Detrick military lab technicians in Maryland who performed the tests on the samples.

He described it as “common variety'' anthrax.

As word of the positive test results spread, officials opened a second anthrax testing center in the physician's office on the first floor of the Capitol. A line extended up to the second floor. Tests also were available in an office building across the street. There, more than 1,000 people were tested yesterday and given a three-day supply of antibiotics as a precaution.

A positive finding does not mean the person has the disease or will get the disease. About 8,000 spores must be inhaled for a person to develop inhalation anthrax.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, testifying on Capitol Hill, said, “There's no question this is a very serious attempt at anthrax poisoning.''

Mr. Lillibridge added: “There's been some attempt to collect it, perhaps refine it and perhaps make it more concentrated. That seems certain.''

Five weeks after the worst terrorist strikes in history killed more than 5,000 in New York and Washington, the discovery only added to the nation's anxiety. Three government sources, all speaking on condition of anonymity, said preliminary testing indicated the anthrax found in Mr. Daschle's office had been refined enough so that it could be easily dispersed through the air.

At a news conference in the basement of the Capitol, Mr. Hastert said the decision to shut down was triggered by the news of the test results from the people exposed to a white powdery substance that fell from a letter opened in Mr. Daschle's office. Mr. Hastert said it was also prompted by the “discovery that this stuff has gotten into the ventilation system, is going through the tunnels, it was in the system of those buildings, and also, found in the mail room in the Senate were packages that moved through.''

“So to make sure that we protect people's safety, we thought it was also prudent to do a complete environmental sweep and make sure that we can resume business on Tuesday.'' he added.

Elsewhere in the country, four people are known to have contracted anthrax and nine others have tested positive for the bacteria.

The FBI is investigating strong similarities in handwriting and style, including identical anti-American language, between the letter sent to Mr. Daschle in Washington and a letter with anthrax sent to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw in New York.

In an effort to jog the public's memory and gain new leads, the Justice Department released photocopies of the envelopes to Mr. Daschle and Mr. Brokaw, showing identical block letters and addresses written slanting to the right.

The photocopies of the envelopes showed both letters were postmarked from Trenton, N.J., and both appeared to have the same type postage.

The two letters contained similar anti-American and anti-Israeli language and a pro-Muslim statement, and both made references about recipients needing medicine, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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