Another senator's mail held anthrax

Letter to Leahy called similar to Daschle's

November 17, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The FBI said last night that investigators have found an anthrax-tainted letter mailed to Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the second discovered on Capitol Hill since a string of deadly anthrax attacks began nearly two months ago.

The letter to Leahy, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, bore the same postmark and handwriting as the earlier letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

The letter, still unopened last night, was postmarked Oct. 9 in Trenton, N.J., and "appears in every respect to be similar to the other anthrax-laced letters," the FBI said in a statement.

Four people have died from inhalation anthrax, 13 others have been infected and thousands of others are taking antibiotics since the first anthrax cases were diagnosed in early October.

Two employees of the Brentwood mail processing facility in Washington were among those who died, leading investigators to speculate for weeks that other anthrax-contaminated letters might exist.

No new cases of anthrax infection have been reported in the past two weeks.

Found in quarantined mail

The envelope addressed to Leahy was found yesterday afternoon as agents with the FBI and Postal Inspection Service combed through one of the more than 250 barrels of unopened mail sent to Congress.

The letter had been quarantined and left unopened after an aide to Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, opened the first letter Oct. 15.

Early tests show anthrax

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III called Leahy at his home in Washington to notify him of the letter.

"I am confident they are taking the appropriate steps and that eventually they will find this person," Leahy said in a statement. "Our Senate leaders and officers did the right thing in isolating the Senate's mail, and my staff and I appreciate all that is being done to resolve this threat."

Investigators worked with great caution in examining the newly found envelope and letter.

In a statement last night, the FBI said that preliminary tests indicated that the "as-yet unopened letter" was contaminated with anthrax.

"Further testing will be conducted in an effort to confirm the presence of anthrax and examine its contents to compare it with that found in the other letters," the bureau said.

Two other letters have been found in New York - one to NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw and one to The New York Post - that also were postmarked in Trenton, but three weeks earlier, on Sept. 18. Each contained identical messages and handwriting.

Culprit still sought

The FBI said last week that it was nearly certain that the first three letters were mailed by the same person.

While not ruling anything out, FBI investigators have said that they believe the culprit probably is a loner who is inside the United States and not connected to organized foreign terrorist groups.

The earlier letters were marked with the date "09-11-01" and included the statements: "Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is Great." FBI investigators have said that the culprit behind the attacks could be trying to disguise himself as a foreign terrorist to mask his identity and motives.

Coming soon after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the anthrax attacks have prompted concerns about widespread bioterrorism. Investigators have said that the bacteria mailed to Daschle were more highly refined and more potent than what were mailed to the two New York media outlets, suggesting the perpetrator was able to finely process the deadly germ - possibly with laboratory equipment that can cost as little as $2,500.

The anthrax outbreak began in Florida, where the photo editor of a tabloid newspaper company died of inhalation anthrax and two other workers were infected. Investigators believe the newspaper offices probably received an anthrax-contaminated letter, but none has been found.

The most puzzling case remains in New York, where hospital worker Kathy Nguyen, who had no ties to the media or to the nation's power structure, died of inhalation anthrax last month.

Letter's last stop unknown

Traces of anthrax have been found in the Manhattan offices of New York Gov. George E. Pataki and across Washington, including dozen of senators' offices in the Hart Senate Office Building across the street from the Capitol.

The Hart Senate Office Building remains closed for cleaning with chlorine dioxide gas.

Leahy's office is in a different building, but it's not clear where the letter was when mail deliveries to Congress ceased.

Hazardous-materials experts began sorting the quarantined congressional mail this week at a facility in Northern Virginia, the FBI said.

The most recent hot spots were in mailrooms at Howard University in Washington, in several more congressional offices - including the Washington office of Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat - and at the State Department's mail facility in Virginia.

Hoax punishment bill

By chance, it was Leahy who had introduced legislation yesterday that would severely punish anyone found responsible for terrorism-related hoaxes, including individuals who mail fake anthrax threats. FBI agents have had to chase down hundreds of such hoaxes in recent weeks.

"Malicious acts deserve stiff penalties and belong in federal court," Leahy said in introducing the proposal.

"These hoaxes siphon away valuable time and resources from law enforcement officers who are already tasked with protecting the public from real dangers," the senator said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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