Senate office buildings reopening after ricin scare

Cleanup moving quickly

investigation continues

February 06, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Senate office buildings began reopening yesterday as investigators said they still had not determined how the poison ricin got into the mail room of the Senate majority leader on Monday.

Hundreds of congressional staffers lined up outside the Russell Senate Office Building across Constitution Avenue from the Capitol, when the doors opened just after noon, eager to return to their desks, which had been off limits for days.

The nearby Hart building is scheduled to reopen today; the Dirksen building, where the poison was discovered, is supposed to be ready for business Monday.

Officials said the collection of unopened mail, the decontamination of the office and the environmental testing of the Senate buildings were proceeding smoothly and more quickly then they had first expected.

"Substantial progress continues to be made to reclaim the building," Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said. "We really are moving along very nicely."

Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing the testing, said ricin had not been detected anywhere except in the fourth floor mailroom of Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and majority leader, where it was first spotted Monday afternoon.

"We have not found a hot letter at this point in time," said Michael Mason, assistant FBI director at the Washington field office. "In terms of how it was delivered to that room, it is open to your imagination."

With no letter in hand, investigators seemed to be considering the idea that the substance might have arrived another way. "The possibilities for the delivery mechanism, whether it is a person or a letter or a package, is open," said Gainer.

Mason described the criminal investigation as "still in its infancy." Law enforcement officials acknowledged that the Secret Service had not immediately informed them of a ricin-contaminated letter directed to the White House in November, but they said new procedures put in place since then would prevent future communication gaps.

But Sen. Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat and the Senate minority leader, said lawmakers of both parties "are very frustrated about the way that whole matter was handled."

"There's no reason why information that vital should be withheld," he said.

Medical officials said none of the staff members on the fourth floor of the Dirksen building in the vicinity of where the ricin was discovered has shown any symptoms of exposure.

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