Daschle Names Names

Posted October 14, 2003 at 6:28pm

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) has unveiled one of the most closely guarded facts about the 2001 anthrax attack on Capitol Hill, revealing the identity of the intern who unwittingly opened the chemically laced letter exactly two years ago today.

Following the Oct. 15, 2001, incident, both the lawmaker and his staff made a concerted effort to shield the staffer’s identity, indicating in news reports only that it was a female intern.

But in his new book on the 107th Congress, set for release next month, Daschle names Grant Leslie as the intern who opened the fateful letter in the sixth-floor suite of the Hart Senate Office Building, and also reveals other previously undisclosed details about the terrifying experience.

“She cut about an inch into the envelope and, much like talcum powder squeezed out of its container, a fine white power, accompanied by a cloud of white dust, spilled out,” Daschle writes in “Like No Other Time,” according to an advance copy of the tome. “Powder landed on her skirt and shoes, on the clothes of Bret Wincup, the intern standing next to her, and on the floor.

“Grant realized immediately what this might be and sat frozen, trying to keep the envelope closed,” Daschle continues.

The Senator goes on to describe the arrival of Capitol Police officers, testing of the then-unknown substance, as well as the initial nasal swabs taken from the dozen staffers, including Leslie, who had been in the sixth-floor office when the letter was opened.

“The doctor attending to Grant collected her nasal swab, and the police swabbed her clothes. The doctor advised her that she needed to prepare herself for the news that her nasal swab would be positive, even if others’ weren’t,” Daschle writes. “He asked her if she wanted to go to the hospital. Shocked by the suggestion, she asked if he thought she needed to be hospitalized, and he responded, ‘It’s up to you.’”

Leslie, who is now a research assistant in the Senator’s office, declined the physician’s offer, asserting, Daschle writes, it “could cause a big scene at the hospital.” She elected to go home after washing and changing clothes.

A Daschle spokeswoman declined a request to interview Leslie, stating the former intern would not speak publicly until after the Nov. 4 release of the book.

In a stirring reminder of the gravity of the situation, Daschle also reveals that at one point Greg Martin, chief of infectious diseases at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., reserved several beds at his facility. After viewing cultures grown from the staffers’ nasal swabs, the doctor feared the worst.

“Cultures are generally held for forty-eight to seventy-two hours, but the plates usually get checked for growth at the twenty-four- and forty-eight-hour marks. It had been less than twelve hours since the cultures were plated, but Greg checked them anyway,” the Senator writes. “He was amazed to find the cream-colored colonies of rod-shaped Bacillus anthracis — anthrax bacteria — well on their way to completely covering about a dozen of the plates. Suddenly, it was a whole new ball game.”

Martin, Daschle writes, believed “there was a strong possibility that despite all medical interventions, some of my staff could develop inhalation anthrax.”

In addition to the anthrax attack, Daschle also addresses his relations with various lawmakers in the 279-page book. He recounts a December 2002 conversation with then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) in which they acknowledged the possibility of facing off with one another for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

“For the first time, we were confronting the possibility that we could soon find ourselves adversaries — a prospect neither of us would relish,” Daschle writes. “Dick broke the silence. ‘Whatever you decide,’ he said, ‘you will always be my friend.’

“I looked back at him and replied, ‘We’ve been through a lot together. You’ll always be my friend, too.’

“We gave each other a big hug. Then he turned without another word and left the room.”

Later in the book, Daschle describes his own elation over Maria Cantwell’s (D) victory in the Washington Senate race back in 2000, which resulted in the historic 50-50 split in the chamber. He recounts that Sen. Trent Lott

(R-Miss.) was simply too shell-shocked to deal with the reality of an equally divided chamber.

“[W]here my days had been driven by excitement and hope, Trent had been living in trepidation. Now, with the results final, he couldn’t accept it,” Daschle writes.

“When I first managed to reach him after the Senate officially became fifty-fifty, Trent could hardly finish a sentence. He was in shock. It was simply too soon for him to accept the fact that his world — his position as Senate majority leader — had just been turned upside down.

“It would turn out to be several weeks before Trent finally acknowledged what had occurred,” Daschle writes.

Similarly, Daschle addresses the Democrats’ efforts, and eventual success, in recruiting a Republican to tip the balance of power in the chamber.

“The reports I was getting by late March were that it looked as though something might happen with [Arizona Sen. John] McCain or [Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln] Chafee. There was very little going on with Jim Jeffords,” Daschle notes, until the Vermont Senator met with Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and mentioned that he would consider becoming an Independent. “[T]hat was enough to push him to the center of our radar screen.”