- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2001

Federal officials yesterday described the anthrax that forced the closing of much of the U.S. Capitol as a strain of the bacteria common to the United States, while 31 Senate staff members and others tested positive for exposure to the disease.

An FBI manhunt for those who sent anthrax-laced letters to government, media and private offices in three states has expanded to include a look for possible domestic terrorists, as House and Senate leaders sought to downplay earlier public statements suggesting a probable biological attack on the Capitol by foreign-born terrorists.

The FBI investigation has developed what one federal law enforcement official described as "some very substantial leads," based on the testing of anthrax samples from letters that went to New York, Florida and Washington, D.C.

The probe also has focused on the letters themselves, two of which were postmarked in Trenton, N.J. Agents have examined the postal bar codes to determine from which of 46 post offices in central New Jersey the letters originated.

Agents also are checking post office surveillance videos and DNA samples from the pre-stamped envelopes the senders used, which have to be moistened before they are sealed.

Although the samples taken from the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and the Senate mailroom included a professionally made, finely milled airborne strain of the disease, it has been determined through testing to be a variety common to the United States.

"Of all the briefings we have had on this matter, not once has anyone used the term 'weapons-grade' to describe the anthrax found in the Senate," the South Dakota Democrat said at a late-afternoon briefing. "The good news it that it is eminently treatable."

Twenty-three members of Mr. Daschle's staff tested positive for exposure to the anthrax bacteria. Also testing positive were three members of the staff of Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, and five U.S. Capitol Police officers.

None has developed the disease, and all are being treated with antibiotics.

Maj. Gen. John Parker of the Fort Detrick military lab, whose technicians performed tests on the Senate samples, told reporters yesterday that the bacteria was found to be "pure spores" and while not as potent as first suspected or claimed by Senate and House leaders they are potentially lethal.

"It's a common variety from all our testing at this point," he said, adding that the samples appeared to be sensitive to all major antibiotics.

Law-enforcement authorities said the anthrax sold by governments who sponsor terrorism, most notably Iraq, and others who sell the bacteria to terrorists for profit, including the Russian mafia, generally deal in a strain of the bacteria that has been manipulated to resist antibiotics. That form of the bacteria is known as a "weapons-grade" biological substance.

Authorities yesterday also said that preliminary tests have determined that the anthrax mailed to NBC News in New York and to American Media Inc. in Florida were similar to each other. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reached the conclusion after extensive tests.

There was no information on whether the samples taken from Capitol Hill matched the New York and Florida strains, although authorities said tests were continuing. They also noted that matching strains need not mean the anthrax came from the same source.

However, a law enforcement official told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that the NBC and Daschle letters both contained the message: "Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great."

The FBI search for the anthrax culprits began Oct. 4 when Bob Stevens, the photo editor at the Sun supermarket tabloid, which is published by American Media, was diagnosed with an airborne form of anthrax and died a day later.

The hunt has focused on three major possible sources of the bacteria:

• If the anthrax bacteria sent to Florida, New York and Nevada were produced in this country by a domestic terrorist or terrorists who took advantage of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington that killed more than 5,000 people.

• If the anthrax was processed in this country by members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, including the 19 terrorists who hijacked four jetliners and crashed three into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Several hijackers were college graduates and students, and six lived in New Jersey, the source of two of the letters.

• If the anthrax was processed in a foreign country and given or sold to terrorists who transported it to the United States as part of a bioterrorism conspiracy in connection with al Qaeda or other terrorists. The likeliest sources, Iraq and the Russian mafia, have long-standing ties to bin Laden.

The FBI has not found any "conclusive evidence" linking the anthrax exposures nationwide to the Sept. 11 attacks, but has not ruled out that possibility.

In the case of the Stevens death, authorities noted that Mohamed Atta, 33, named as the pilot aboard the American Airlines flight that first struck the World Trade Center, lived near the photo editor's Florida office and that Mr. Stevens lived about a mile from an airstrip where flight school owner Marian Smith said Atta rented planes.

Authorities said Atta sought treatment for "abnormally red" hands from a Florida pharmacist in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks.

An airborne infection of anthrax can be fatal 90 percent of the time. Less-lethal forms include cutaneous anthrax, which occurs if the bacteria come in contact with the skin. That form of the disease is curable 80 percent of the time. Eleven of the 13 persons who have tested positive for the anthrax disease have contracted the cutaneous strain.

In the latest finding, New York Gov. George E. Pataki said the anthrax bacteria had been detected in his midtown Manhattan office, although no one was believed to have the disease. Eighty persons in the office were relocated and tested for the bacteria.

Also yesterday, a federal complaint charged William Sylvia, 34, of Portsmouth, R.I., with mailing a letter that purported to contain anthrax, although it actually contained talcum powder.

Authorities said he sent a letter to another person with a note saying "kaboom," and "if you weren't killed by the bomb, then you will be killed by the anthrax in the letter."

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