- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

Thirty-six senators and dozens of their staff members yesterday moved back into the Russell Senate Office Building, which had been closed since Tuesday after authorities confirmed that the deadly toxin ricin was found in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s office.

No illnesses have been reported, and no new trace of the lethal poison has been found during an extensive search of the three Senate office buildings by hundreds of U.S. Capitol Police officers and others who have swarmed through the abandoned buildings to reclaim unopened mail.

The Hart Senate Office Building is expected to open today at 9 a.m., and the Dirksen building — where Mr. Frist’s offices are located — is to open at 7 a.m. Monday.

Meanwhile, the massive investigation into the source of the ricin found continued yesterday with still no answer on how the poison found its way into Mr. Frist’s fourth-floor mailroom in the Dirksen building.

Mr. Frist said he assumed the ricin — which was discovered on the tray of a letter-opening machine in a mail-sorting area of his personal office — had been mailed to the U.S. Capitol in a letter, although there is no information on who sent it, and why or how it was sent.

Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said no one had claimed responsibility for sending the ricin, and although there was no information to tie the incident to any known terrorist organization, a task force of investigators had not ruled out any possibility.

Chief Gainer said the probe continues to focus on two other ricin-tainted letters found Oct. 15 at a mail facility in Greenville, S.C., and Nov. 6 at an offsite location where mail is processed for the White House. Those letters were signed by someone who identified himself as “Fallen Angel” and was angry about new laws regulating the trucking industry.

At a press conference yesterday, FBI Assistant Director Michael Mason, who heads the bureau’s Washington field office, would not comment on how much ricin was found in Mr. Frist’s office, describing it only as a small quantity.

Mr. Mason noted, however, that 43 letters taken from Mr. Frist’s office were being swabbed and otherwise analyzed to determine which ones — if any — were used to deliver the poison to the Capitol. Several other papers and envelopes also were being tested.

“We’re not a point and time to say how [the ricin] was delivered. We have not found a hot letter,” Mr. Mason said. “The investigation is still in its infancy.”

Mr. Mason acknowledged the possibility that the source of the ricin could remain unknown, but he remained optimistic the “case will get solved.”

The FBI has yet to determine who mailed letters laced with the deadly anthrax bacteria 28 months ago to the offices of Sen. Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, or to news organizations in New York and Florida. Five persons nationwide died in that attack, including two postal workers at the District’s mail facility on Brentwood Road, and dozens of others became ill.

The Senate office buildings were closed for months after the 2001 anthrax attacks, but additional air filters and other protective devices since have been installed, along with increased environmental sampling. All mail is now screened and irradiated, although irradiation — which destroys viruses and bacteria — is not likely to have an effect on ricin, health authorities said.

“Because we had the screens in place, the filters, because we have a regimen in place now to deal with potential victims, because we’ve got an infrastructure in place, we’re so much better at handling this,” Mr. Daschle said during a press briefing yesterday. “That isn’t to say it wasn’t a major logistical challenge, but I think we’ve come a long way.”

Nine members of Mr. Frist’s staff have been asked to submit blood samples to Navy medical researchers to determine whether they had developed antibodies to the ricin, which might aid in the development of an antidote.

Chief Gainer also credited the Frist staffer who found the ricin for taking decisive action to clear the area. He said the intern, described only as a young woman, “knew enough about precautions and to be wary to sound the alarm.”

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