- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Federal authorities shut down three Senate office buildings yesterday after it was confirmed that the deadly poison ricin was found in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s office on Monday — the second toxic attack on the U.S. Capitol in 21/2 years.

Meanwhile, a Justice Department official said last night that a letter containing ricin was sent to the White House in November, but it was intercepted at a small mail-handling center off the White House grounds.

No announcement ever has been made of its discovery.

The official, who requested anonymity, said the toxin was contained in a small vial. The fine powder in the vial tested positive for ricin, although it was described as having “low potency.”

The vial, the official said, was similar to one discovered at a mail facility in October in South Carolina.

Mr. Frist said no one has been sickened in the Senate mailing, which he called an act of terrorism.

“Because it is a poison, a toxic chemical that we know is deadly, that we know there is no treatment for, the assumption is that it [was sent with] the intent to harm. Because of the nature of the agent, it clearly is intended to terrorize, as well,” the Tennessee Republican said, adding that it was “premature” to conclude that any terrorist group, including al Qaeda, had been involved.

The Senate will convene today at 1 p.m., but the Dirksen, Hart and Russell office buildings will remain closed, Mr. Frist said last night.

Senate business almost ground to a halt yesterday after the office buildings were closed when tests results showed that a white powder found on a table in the mailroom of Mr. Frist’s office, on the fourth-floor of the Dirksen building, was ricin. Sixteen staff members were decontaminated Monday night as a precaution.

The U.S. Capitol was closed to tourists yesterday, but the House conducted business as usual.

U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said his agency is conducting a criminal investigation in the ricin case, in conjunction with the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force and the Department of Homeland Security. Investigators have not yet conducted a thorough examination, but there is “nothing at first blush” to indicate any obvious threat in any of the letters they have seized, he said.

At a press conference with Mr. Frist yesterday, Chief Gainer said that investigators will try to track in the next several days how the ricin got into the building, that hundreds of officers will try to reclaim any unopened mail sent to the Capitol, and that tests will begin on the floors, desks and other areas “to ensure that those buildings are safe.”

The chief said the letters and other equipment in the mailroom would be sent to federal authorities for analysis. He said the mailroom also was sealed.

“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,” he said, adding that tests of filters or air systems since the ricin discovery have been negative.

Mr. Frist said a Senate staff member spotted the ricin on an automatic mail opener where about 30 letters had been opened. The staffer asked everyone to leave the room and called the Capitol Police. Most of the letters, according to Senate staffers, were from Frist constituents in Tennessee.

The Senate leader and Chief Gainer said investigators still were uncertain from which, if any, piece of mail the ricin had come.

Meanwhile, agitated postal workers in Wallingford, Conn., awaited test results yesterday on a mysterious powder found at the same mail-distribution center where anthrax was discovered in 2001.

The coarse, gray powder was found Monday night, leaking out of an envelope addressed to the Republican National Committee. It was discovered about the time that ricin was found in Mr. Frist’s office in Washington.

The Wallingford center remained open yesterday while the powder was tested by the state Department of Public Health, and no workers were reported to be sickened. Some of the powder was sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

At the Capitol press conference, Mr. Frist, a medical doctor, noted that mail to congressional offices has been irradiated since the October 2001 anthrax attacks, but that radiation would be unlikely to have an effect on ricin.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who attended the press conference, urged the public to be patient while the investigation continues.

“This is going to take some time, to put the pieces together, to assess our circumstances,” he said. “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.”

Mr. Daschle’s offices and those of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, were the targets of the 2001 anthrax-laced letter attacks, which killed five persons nationwide — including two postal workers at the District’s postal facility on Brentwood Road NE.

President Bush was briefed yesterday on the discovery of the poison, and the White House formed an interagency team to investigate the matter.

Charles Dasey, a spokesman at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., said scientists there were conducting a “confirmatory” test on the substance found at Mr. Frist’s office. Results of that test, which are considered to have a higher reliability, are expected in a few days.

A Tennessee neurologist whose convictions for ricin manufacturing were overturned said yesterday that those responsible for the ricin sent to Mr. Frist’s office were “stupid.”

Dr. Raymond W. Mettetal Jr. said from his mother’s Johnson City, Tenn., home that the type of ricin found in the office is “a very crude thing and it’s very easily done. There’s sites on the Internet and books published. But what you’ve got is just not very dangerous. What they did was stupid.”

• Amy Fagan and Jon Ward contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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