Anthrax hits Capitol Hill

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle became a target of an apparent anthrax attack, when an aide to the South Dakota Democrat opened an envelope yesterday containing powder that tested positive for the germ.

Two more cases of anthrax came to light yesterday. In New York, officials at ABC News said last night that the infant son of an employee has been diagnosed with the skin form of anthrax. The child, who was not identified, was said to be responding well to treatment.

In Florida, a 73-year-old employee of the tabloid newspaper company where one man died from the disease was also confirmed to have contracted anthrax. The Florida man, previously identified as having been exposed to the disease, was said to be recovering.

In Washington, about 50 Capitol Hill employees who may have come in contact with the letter to Daschle were tested and treated with antibiotics. There was no sign last night that anyone had contracted the disease as a result of the incident.

President Bush was the first to reveal the apparent attack, the first on a U.S. government official and the first in the nation's capital since the wave of bioterror began.

"I just talked to leader Daschle," Bush said at the White House just after noon. "He is obviously concerned, as am I."

Bush said there may be "some possible link" between the attack and Osama bin Laden.

"We're making sure that we connect any dots that we have, to find out who's doing this," Bush said. "I wouldn't put it past him, but we don't have hard evidence."

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that "just circumstantially, one has to worry ... because of the timing."

Federal authorities say they are now investigating whether followers of bin Laden are behind the anthrax cases around the nation.

This represents a significant shift in the thinking of investigators, who had speculated earlier that the initial case in Florida was an isolated criminal act unconnected with the Sept. 11 attacks.

The shift of the investigation is based not on definitive proof but on circumstantial information drawn from cases in recent days, such as the postmarks on the letters known to contain anthrax. Each was sent from places near where terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks lived or visited.

The letter sent to Daschle's office and one sent to NBC News in New York were postmarked Sept. 18 in Trenton, N.J., postal officials said. An assistant to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw contracted an anthrax skin infection after opening the envelope weeks ago.

At the Trenton mail processing center, Postal Inspector Tony Esposito said two employees - a letter carrier and a maintenance worker - had complained of headache and mild fever. But there was no evidence that they, or any other postal worker there, had been exposed to anthrax.

Esposito said the Trenton center processes and postmarks mail from 46 nearby post offices, with ZIP codes beginning with 085 or 086. The center processes 400,000 to 600,000 pieces of mail daily. Esposito expressed confidence that inspectors would be able to trace the NBC letter to the post office from which it was mailed

Nationwide, 13 people are known to have been exposed to anthrax since the incidents began, including Robert Stevens, the sole fatality. He contracted the deadly inhaled form of the disease.

Two other American Media employees were tested and found to have been exposed to anthrax. One of them, AMI mailroom employee Ernesto Blanco, 73, is now believed to have the inhaled form of anthrax - the third case of anthrax in the United States to be diagnosed since Oct. 4.

Although the strictest diagnostic criteria have not yet been met, the Florida Department of Health said the man's symptoms and positive test suggest that he has anthrax. Officials said he is improving, and that they are "encouraged by his progress."

A small number of anthrax spores were found in the post office that handled mail for AMI, it was announced yesterday. Employees who work in that part of the building have received nasal swabs that tested negative for anthrax, a postal inspector said.

The fourth case, involving the infant son of an ABC News employee, was disclosed last night, hours after doctors confirmed a preliminary diagnosis of cutaneous anthrax, the type contracted by Brokaw's assistant.

ABC News President David Westin, citing privacy concerns, refused to identify the ABC employee whose child was infected. The infant, who according to the Associated Press is 7 months old, spent several hours on two floors of the ABC building on West 66th Street in New York on Sept. 28.

Westin, who said the child has an "excellent prognosis," said there was no indication that anyone else at ABC had been infected.

He cautioned others in the news media not to jump to conclusions and said the child might have been exposed elsewhere. But, he called it "quite a coincidence" that the infection followed the child's visit to the ABC building.

In response to the ABC case, police in New York began testing last night for traces of anthrax in the mailrooms of six other media companies in Manhattan: CNN, CBS, AP, the Daily News, Fox and the New York Post. Similar checks have already been made at The New York Times and NBC.

The NBC employee, who contracted the skin form of the disease after opening a letter addressed to Brokaw, is said to be recovering. A police officer and two lab technicians who handled the contaminated letter were found to have been exposed to anthrax spores. Two had spores in their noses; one had spores on her face, according to Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

In Reno, Nev., where pornographic pictures contaminated by anthrax were found last week, six workers who might have had contact with the letter were tested for exposure to the germ. The last of the results for those people came in yesterday; all were negative.

In Baltimore, the FBI released a statement from Special Agent Lynne A. Hunt, saying that "threatening letters were received by 15 abortion clinics in Maryland and Delaware. The letters held a white powder and alleged that they contained anthrax. Four clinics were targeted in Delaware and 11 in Maryland. The letters are being tested for anthrax, and the results will be made public. One envelope has tentatively tested negative for anthrax.

Officials with the Planned Parenthood Federation, whose clinics received the letters, said more than 90 letters containing anthrax threats were received yesterday at clinics in 13 states on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

On Capitol Hill, two preliminary tests conducted by Capitol Police on the substance contained in the Daschle letter showed the presence of anthrax, according to Lt. Dan Nichols, a police spokesman. Results are expected today from a more comprehensive test being conducted by the Army lab at Fort Detrick, near Frederick.

The woman who opened the letter, and other Daschle staff members in the office at the time, were tested immediately and began taking antibiotics as a precaution, police said.

Capitol Police and mailroom workers who might have come in contact with the letter were also tested and treated, said Dr. John Eisold, the Senate's attending physician, who conducted the tests. Results of those tests should be known by today.

The Daschle aides, none of whom were identified, were working in the senator's office in the Hart building across from the Capitol and were quarantined for much of the day as police conducted their investigation and medical personnel sought to ensure that there was no prospect of further exposure.

"I feel so badly," Daschle said about the potential risk to his staff. "They are innocent people caught up in a matter for which they have nothing to do. I am very, very disappointed, and angered."

Daschle said his office would be closed for several days as the cleanup continues, but that the Senate's legislative activities would continue.

"It is very important to me," Daschle said in a speech on the Senate floor. "We will not close our buildings. We will continue to work."

But public tours of the Capitol, already sharply limited since the Sept. 11 attacks, were suspended indefinitely. Mail delivery to congressional offices was halted.

New procedures aimed at detecting biological hazards were to have taken effect this week, but were not used on mail that had already arrived.

Daschle said his office is returning unopened mail. He urged other senators to take similar steps until new screening procedures are in place.

As the investigations continue, law enforcement authorities have been scrambling to respond to thousands of anthrax scares, false alarms and hoaxes.

Emergency officials are advising people to err on the side of caution, but calls about suspicious packages are raising concerns that the scares will overwhelm police and health departments.

Since Friday, Anne Arundel County hazardous materials teams have responded to more than 30 reports of suspicious mail and suspicious white powder - none of which proved dangerous. People reported suspicions about powdered sugar on a doughnut and about a cigarette ash at a Glen Burnie 7-Eleven, officials said.

The Baltimore Harbor Tunnel was closed for about 45 minutes late last night after authorities received reports of a white powder blowing across the lanes of the southbound tube. The tunnel was reopened about 11:30 p.m. after testing by the Maryland Department of the Environment indicated that the substance was salt.

Sun staff writers Laura Barnhardt, Michael Scarcella and Paul West, and wire reports contributed to this article.

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