Leaders Vow Quick Reopening
Ricin Incident Leaves Capitol On Edge Again
With investigators racing to determine the source of a ricin-laced package, Senate officials said Tuesday they expect the chamber’s office buildings to remain closed at least through the end of the week.
Stressing that no one had yet to show symptoms of serious exposure to the toxic poison, the officials said all mail directed to Congress is being examined to determine if other letters or packages contained ricin beyond the measure discovered Monday afternoon in Majority Leader Bill Frist’s personal office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
“This is an insult, an assault on the Senate,” the Tennessee Republican said at a Tuesday-afternoon press conference during which he vowed to keep the Senate on schedule. All Senate hearings were canceled Tuesday, but by evening many were being relocated to venues on the House side of Capitol Hill. At press time, a joint session to receive Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar and an afternoon appearance by President Bush at the Library of Congress were both expected to go on as scheduled.
Frist said he expected the Hart, Dirksen and Russell buildings to remain closed, but not for a period anything near the monthslong shutdown of the Hart Building that occurred after the October 2001 anthrax attack on the personal office of Frist’s predecessor as Majority Leader, Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
“We expect it to be days, not weeks,” Frist said. Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer added that all the offices could be open within three to five days.
Both the Homeland Security Department and the Department of Defense have offered assistance to the Capitol Police in the inspection of the thousands of pieces of mail. The Capitol Police have called in the assistance of potentially as many as 200 Marines to gather mail already distributed to Senate offices.
“They needed the manpower to do this in a timely fashion,” said a senior Senate aide. The Marines will work in teams of four.
At press time Tuesday, Capitol Police and Senate leadership had not released the results of tests conducted at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., and Frist said he could not provide details on the strength of the ricin, a toxin derived from castor beans.
“It is a trying time and we’re working with agents that have only rarely been used in history with the intent to terrorize,” Frist said.
Gainer said the law-enforcement agency, which is working with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, is pursuing the matter as a criminal investigation.
Before Senate staffers are allowed to return to their offices, Capitol Police plan to collect thousands of pieces of unopened mail. Additionally, Gainer acknowledged, Capitol Police have seized items from the Dirksen room where the ricin was discovered, although analysis of those items is not yet complete.
Gainer said the law-enforcement agency will assign “hundred of individuals” to collect mail in both House and Senate office buildings.
“Homeland Security and the Department of Defense have offered us all the assets we need to smartly and scientifically go through those buildings,” he said.
Although House offices were not closed Tuesday, an emergency e-mail notice issued by House leadership warned staffers not to disturb any mail delivered to the offices.
An additional e-mail sent to House offices Tuesday evening noted that retrival would begin immediately in the Capitol, and in House office buildings beginning today.
“Offices should be advised that mail collected through this process WILL NOT be returned, and that the individuals collecting the mail will be dressed in the appropriate environmental attire,” the e-mail states.
“We are following the stream of mail” from the U.S. Postal Service to the Capitol, Gainer said; however, he could not confirm whether the package had actually entered the Capitol via the postal system or through a private delivery service such as UPS or FedEx. “We haven’t ruled anything out,” he said.
Despite that uncertainty, the Postal Service elected Tuesday to shut down the facility it uses to process mail delivered to the House and Senate, as well as other government agencies.
“We’ve closed our V Street [Northeast] facility — and government mail is being held until we’re given the OK,” said USPS spokesman Bob Anderson. The Postal Service is also also testing a powdery substance found at its Wallingford, Conn., branch. Anthrax spores were found at that facility in 2001, after anthrax-laced letters were sent to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The next several days also represent a critical period for monitoring individuals exposed to the the toxin, Attending Physician John Eisold said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of ricin poisoning, which develop within a few hours of inhaling “significant amounts of ricin,” may include difficulty breathing, fever, cough, nausea and tightness in the chest.
Eisold said Tuesday afternoon that individuals should continue to monitor their health for an additional 48 to 72 hours, the “window” in which symptoms could develop.
“We’re confident we can catch these symptoms,” Eisold said.
According to the CDC, ricin is a “biologic toxin” that can be fatal if it is ingested or injected, although exposure can also occur through inhalation. No cure exists for ricin poisoning.
“Ricin is considered to be a much more potent toxin when inhaled or injected compared with other routes of exposure,” a CDC Web site states. Although a 500-microgram dose of ricin, equivalent in size to the head of pin, would be lethal if injected, the CDC notes, a “greater amount” would need to be inhaled or swallowed to be toxic.
The poison can prevent cells from producing necessary proteins, and can lead to kidney failure, respiratory failure, circulatory collapse and fluid loss.
Between 40 and 50 individuals, including more than a dozen Capitol Police officers, who were on the Dirksen Building’s fourth floor around 6:30 p.m. Monday were quarantined and later sent through decontamination, according to one Senate aide who went through the process.
The aide described the group as “very calm,” and added: “Senator Frist had called in a couple of times to tell everyone it was very rare for anyone to get sick from ricin.”
The Attending Physician’s office briefed the group on signs of ricin poisoning, but did not conduct any phsyical examinations, the aide said.
Around midnight the group was led to a decontamination area set up in the hallway connecting the Dirksen and Hart buildings, and after completing the process were interviewed by the police.
“The Capitol Police and the Attending Physician were very informational, very reassuring. In some ways I felt worse for the people who had gone home,” the aide said.
Senate staff who had already left the building Monday night were contacted by telephone and e-mail with instructions to place exposed clothing into bags and take a precautionary shower.
Business as Not Quite Usual
Some Senators managed to squeeze in pre-arranged meetings with constituents. Georgia’s Senators, Zell Miller (D) and Saxby Chambliss (R), met with a group from the University of Georgia on Tuesday morning in Miller’s apartment, which is directly across the street from the Dirksen Building.
After some initial floor discussion of the ricin incident, the Senate took up its scheduled debate on the multibillion-dollar highway bill.
At their regular Tuesday luncheon, Senate Democrats had a normal enough discussion that they received a briefing from Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.), the ranking member of the Budget Committee, about President Bush’s new budget. (Charts were, of course, included.)
The toughest challenge was for the staffs of the chamber’s newest Members, such as Chambliss, whose junior status means he doesn’t get a hideaway. Asked where his office was Tuesday, Chambliss pointed to the cell phone attached to his belt. “Everybody’s obviously scattered throughout in their homes,” he said of his staff.
Some aides privately complained about not being notified quickly enough about the presence of ricin in Dirksen, often not until well after 6 p.m. Monday, given that Capitol Police were first called to the scene shortly after 3 p.m.
Frist said that he was notified by about 3:15 p.m Monday that there was a suspicious package in his Dirksen office, but it’s unclear as to when the powdery substance was determined to be ricin by that time. Sources indicated that the initial field test in the office came back negative, but that subsequent tests by officers in their mobile chemical vans were positive for ricin.
Daschle said he was first alerted to the serious nature of the incident at 6:30 p.m., but said he found no fault with the response to the incident.
Indeed, Daschle called the response to this potentially deadly scare much better than the anthrax attacks on his staff. “We are light years ahead,” he said.
Officials gave no indication that the ricin package had any connection to the anthrax attacks, which have been investigated for almost 28 months without a single arrest made.
Gainer said that of the letters, envelopes and packages that were collected in Frist’s offices, none bared any obviously threatening message. “Nothing on first blush that led us to believe there was a visible threat,” he said.
In the letters to Daschle and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee at the time of the anthrax attacks, the postmarks were similar, from false addresses in New Jersey, and the letters contained threatening messages.
Aides to Daschle and Leahy said they had not received an update from the FBI on the anthrax probe in many months, probably not since the end of last summer.
‘It’s been a long, long time,’ Leahy said.
Despite dissapointment over the investigation into the anthrax letters, Senators and Capitol Police did praise improvements made in reaction to the 2001 incident.
Among the improvements, Daschle noted new filters installed in the Senate’s ventilation system. That system was shut down Monday night in an effort to prevent the possible spread of the ricin.
The new mail irradiation process now in place would likely not affect ricin, which is classified as a biotoxin, and according to the CDC is not affected by “extreme conditions such as very hot or very cold temperatures.” Irradiation can kill bacteria, such as anthrax, and other disease-causing germs.
When asked about safety procedures applied to mail Tuesday afternoon, Daschle acknowledged: “We will never be completely invulnerable to all the potential threats that exist out there.”
CAPITOL HILL MAIL: A Timeline
Key dates of Congressional mail delivery changes and precautions taken since anthrax was first sent to Capitol Hill shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks:
Oct. 15, 2001 — Letter containing anthrax spores is opened in then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) personal office. Capitol Police shut down part of Hart Senate Office Building; entire building later closed.
Oct. 17, 2001 — Preliminary tests reveal 31 Hill workers and staffers exposed to anthrax spores. Staffers offered antibiotics.
Nov. 16, 2001 — FBI discovers letter containing anthrax addressed to Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) amid piles of unopened mail in off-site facility.
November-December 2001 — Chlorine dioxide gas used to rid anthrax spores from Hart; officials begin irradiating all Hill mail to eliminate any possible contaminants.
January 2002 — Hill staffers begin to complain of health effects feared to be related to irradiated mail.
Jan. 18, 2002 — Hart reopened after three-month, $27 million cleanup.
June 2002 — Report by Office of Compliance general counsel finds handling irradiated mail for substantial periods may cause adverse health effects.
Aug. 15, 2002 — Capitol officials attribute decline in number of staffers complaining of mail-related illnesses to lower levels of irradiation.
November 2002 — House Administration Committee begins 90-day digital mail pilot program; 10 House offices volunteer to have mail scanned off-site and receive digital copies.
Feb. 28, 2003 — Multiple House and Senate offices receive suspicious letters containing white powder. Field tests are all negative, but news creates panic in some offices.
January 2004 — House Administration launches second phase of digital mail pilot program, with 15 additional offices set to join original 10 in program.
Feb. 2, 2004 — A white powder confirmed to be ricin is found in Dirksen Senate Office Building; Senate offices shut down three to five days.