No link yet to anthrax, bin Laden

Still, FBI chief says, 'organized terrorism not been ruled out'

Evidence made public

Similarities detected in letters sent to Daschle, Brokaw

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 17, 2001|By Gail Gibson and Frank D. Roylance | Gail Gibson and Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON M-y The nation's top law enforcement officials yesterday tempered speculation that Osama bin Laden and his henchmen are behind the wave of anthrax cases and scares that have rattled the country.

At the same time, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III noted similarities between the anthrax-tainted letters mailed from New Jersey to the offices of Sen. Tom Daschle in Washington and NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw in New York.

"While organized terrorism has not been ruled out," Mueller said, "so far we have found no direct link to organized terrorism."

His remarks, and comments yesterday by Attorney General John Ashcroft, ran counter to statements in recent days by President Bush and other administration officials that the anthrax attacks might be tied to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida terrorist network.

"Any time someone sends anthrax through the mail, it's an act of terror," Ashcroft told reporters. "But while we have not ruled out linkage to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 or the perpetrators of that attack, we do not have conclusive evidence that would provide a basis for a conclusion that it is a part of that terrorist endeavor." Nevertheless, said Mueller, "every threat receives a full response." "We have no choice but to assume that each reported instance is an actual biothreat," he said.

Law enforcement and public health investigators were putting that assumption to work yesterday.

In New York, they swept through broadcast, newspaper and wire service offices searching for suspect mail or traces of anthrax bacteria.

In Washington, Senate offices were closed, mail deliveries were stopped and hundreds of Senate workers reported for nasal swab tests and starter doses of antibiotics.

In Florida, one tabloid newspaper employee was in intensive care with anthrax disease, while hundreds of his co-workers prepared for another round of testing today.

And in Nevada, state health authorities stood by their assertion that there was anthrax in a letter sent from Malaysia to a Microscoft office in Reno, despite a finding by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that there was none.

Federal agents in search of hard leads in the case said yesterday that they were examining possible links between two letters that contained confirmed anthrax.

Mueller said there were "certain similarities" between a letter sent to NBC in New York and one sent to the Capitol Hill office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Agents are investigating whether they might have come from the same source.

Both letters tested positive for anthrax contamination, and each had a Trenton, N.J., postmark. Daschle's was postmarked Oct. 8; the NBC letter was marked Sept. 16. The handwriting on the two letters also appeared to be similar, Mueller said.

The FBI released photos of the two envelopes yesterday.

Both were addressed in block print capital letters, in a childlike script. The envelope addressed to "Senator Daschle" bore a return address reading: 4TH GRADE, GREENDALE SCHOOL, FRANKLIN PARK NJ 08852.

The school apparently does not exist. The Brokaw letter had no return address.

The FBI said the letters were undergoing handwriting analysis. The anthrax strains found in each envelope were being tested to see what characteristics they shared, if any.

Ashcroft said investigators wanted people to know what the envelopes looked like, because there could be others in circulation.

Anthrax scares and false alarms have swept many cities around the world, but the only actual exposures so far have all been in the United States.ridians have been found to carry antibodies to the anthrax virus, but they are awaiting further tests to confirm any recent exposure. All the survivors are being treated with antibiotics.

So far, however, investigators have only the Daschle and the NBC letters, their contents, and the anthrax bacteria themselves as tangible clues to the mystery.

Investigators suspect that the anthrax that infected the Florida employees of tabloid publisher American Media Inc. also was carried into the newspapers' offices in a letter or package. But none has been found. There has also been no contaminated letter found at ABC News in New York, where the 7-month-old infant son of a producer is believed to have contracted the skin form of the disease.

CDC tests Monday found no anthrax in the sample of bacteria isolated from the letter by the state lab in Nevada.

But Nevada state epidemiologist Dr. Randall L. Todd said yesterday the CDC's conclusion was premature, because delays in the shipment of the sample to Atlanta could have degraded it.

"We don't consider any results the CDC has right now to be final," he said.

Todd said the sample was sent by overnight air, but the flight was cut short and the sample was shipped the rest of the way by truck, arriving more than a day late. A new sample, in a more stable medium, was en route yesterday from Nevada to the CDC for further testing.

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