- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Three Senate office buildings will begin reopening as early as today after having been closed since Tuesday, when authorities confirmed that the lethal toxin ricin had been found in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s office.

Authorities yesterday intensified the massive manhunt for the source of the deadly poison as hundreds of U.S. Capitol Police officers and others combed through the abandoned Senate offices to seize unopened mail. Meanwhile, 100 Marines members of the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force began the arduous task of reconnaissance and decontamination in the buildings.

Mr. Frist, Tennessee Republican, took to the Senate floor yesterday to announce that no one had been sickened in the incident and that the Russell Senate Office Building would reopen at noon today, the Hart building at 9 a.m. tomorrow and the Dirksen building at 7 a.m. Monday.

At a news conference, Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said no one had taken “credit or blame” for sending the ricin to Mr. Frist’s office and that a task force of state, federal and local law-enforcement authorities continues to investigate the matter.

“There is nothing that would lead me to believe at this moment that this is a terrorist act,” Chief Gainer said. “This is a crime.”

The FBI has focused on whether the ricin found in Mr. Frist’s office on Monday is similar to that found at a Greenville, S.C., postal facility in October and in a letter sent to the White House in November. Those letters were signed by someone who identified himself as the “Fallen Angel” and said he was angry over new laws passed by Congress regulating the hours truckers can drive daily.

FBI agents also are investigating the discovery last year of ricin in a London apartment rented by associates of terror network al Qaeda.

Authorities said yesterday that a powder found Monday night in a Wallingford, Conn., post office was wood ash, not ricin.

A powder found at the V Street mail-sorting center in Northeast also tested negative for ricin, according to Mr. Frist and U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman Deb Yackley. Ms. Yackley said the building would be open for business today.

In the Senate probe, law-enforcement sources said the biggest challenge facing investigators has been the inability to match the ricin found on a table in Mr. Frist’s office with any of several letters that had been opened. The sources said investigators have yet to discover how the ricin got into the building or from where it originated.

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Scott McClellan defended a Bush administration decision not to make public the interception in November of the ricin-tainted letter amid concerns by some members of Congress that keeping the matter secret put people in jeopardy.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, said the administration made “a serious mistake” by not notifying “other potential targets,” including postal workers, mail handlers and congressional members and staffers, that a vial of ricin sent to the White House had been intercepted.

Mr. McClellan said the ricin was found at an off-site facility and was determined not to be a health threat. He said homeland-security officials at the White House convened an interagency conference call after the discovery to ensure that appropriate law-enforcement and public-health officials were informed.

“We obviously take public-health risks very seriously, and if there is information that needs to be shared, we share it appropriately,” Mr. McClellan said, acknowledging that President Bush had not been told of the letter. Mr. McClellan said he did not know whether Congress had been told.

Chief Gainer said Capitol Police and other law-enforcement agencies “were very much aware in a very timely manner” of the discovery of the White House letter and that another suspect letter containing the poison had been found in South Carolina.

“The law-enforcement community was not taken by surprise,” he said.

• Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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