Russell, Hart Set to Reopen

Posted February 4, 2004 at 7:00pm

Senate officials announced early Wednesday afternoon that they would “accelerate” the scheduled opening of office buildings closed after the toxin ricin was discovered earlier this week.

Individuals with knowledge of the investigation attributed the change in schedule to improved coordination between the Capitol Police and outside agencies, the framework of which was developed as a result of the 2001 anthrax attacks.

The Russell and Hart Senate office buildings are expected to open at noon today and 9 a.m. Friday, respectively, unless additional evidence of ricin is found. The Dirksen Senate Office Building is tentatively scheduled to open at 7 a.m. Monday, with the exception of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) fourth-floor office, where a ricin-laced letter was opened on Monday afternoon, prompting the closure of all three buildings.

Marines, Coast Guard and other authorities were expected to continue combing House and Senate office buildings Wednesday evening collecting thousands of pieces of unopened mail. Although House offices and the Capitol remained open this week, incoming mail service was suspended.

“It’s still not going to be as quickly as most people would like, but [we’ve] accelerated the initial proposal and plans,” Frist said Wednesday on the Senate floor.

Sources familiar with the investigation noted the decision to reopen the buildings so quickly did not come as a surprise, despite estimates Tuesday by Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer that the process would take at least three days, and possibly longer.

“Less than 48 hours ago we had a stroke here and in less than 48 hours, we’re going to have 90 percent recovery,” Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle asserted Wednesday.

While the incident is similar in nature to the 2001 anthrax attacks in which anthrax-laced letters were opened in the Hart Senate Office Building of then-Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the coordination between federal agencies, Capitol Police and Senate officials is significantly changed.

One aide familiar with the 2001 attacks noted that it required several days to formulate a response to the incident, while much of the same planning was completed in a single night this time.

“Last time we were the pilot program. We weren’t sure who was in charge,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was Minority Leader at the time of the anthrax attacks and now has oversight of the police as Rules chairman.

That uncertainty carried on throughout the three-month period required to clean and re-open the Hart Building, with a 2002 Environmental Protection Agency report on the incident stating “resources were committed and assigned somewhat randomly” because of problems in the top tiers of the command system.

While the ricin investigation involves many of the agencies that played a role in the 2001 attacks — including the EPA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI — the Capitol Police have taken a prominent role in organizing the efforts.

Lott compared Gainer to a soldier “on the point” who is directing the traffic of other soldiers who have differing responsibilities. “He’s not running the show, it’s more like a committee,” he said.

Similarly, a Capitol Police officer familiar with the investigation noted: “Gainer has actually decided to take more of a lead role into this” rather than allow “everybody else [to] come into our backyard and take over.”

In discussing the investigation, which is being conducted jointly with the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, Gainer said of the coordination between the agencies: “To the naked eye, you wouldn’t know if it was an FBI agent or a Capitol Police officer.”

“The law enforcement emergency response family has matured a lot since 9/11 and anthrax,” he added.

Coordination between agencies began within hours of the discovery of a powdery substance, later identified as ricin, in Frist’s personal office in Dirksen on Monday night, Gainer said at an afternoon press conference.

“Within a matter of 20 minutes after this occurred, we were overwhelmed with calls from other agencies,” he said.

While the Capitol Police have primary jurisdiction over any crime that occurs on Capitol grounds, a number of agencies — such as the FBI or the U.S. Postal Inspector — share jurisdiction depending on the specific crime.

“From a standpoint of lead, it’s a joint investigation,” said Bill Carter, an FBI spokesman. “The FBI does have primary jurisdiction in these types of incidents. In an effort for close coordination we work these cases jointly with other agencies.”

In addition into the investigation into the source of the letter, Senate officials said Wednesday they will reconvene a “Legislative Mail Task Force” to examine the screening and delivery of mail to the Capitol and its office buildings.

“We’ll probably go back and look at where mail is opened and how it is opened,” said Frist, who called the ricin-laced letter “a terrorist attack on my life.”

Lott suggested Wednesday that one of the biggest logistical problems so far has been finding work space for Senators and staff.

After spending most of Tuesday searching for space in the Capitol for Senators and most of Wednesday securing space for dislocated staff, Lott said Congress should at least consider having a permanent alternative work-space site nearby. “Should we already have alternative space in place?” Lott asked, suggesting that the biggest problem might be costs.

Having a big hall, such as the Postal Square building adjacent to Union Station, always on call to be an alternative Congressional office building would require some sort of financial retainer — money that might go to waste if there are no more attacks that temporarily dislocate Senators and staff.

Since being displaced from their offices Tuesday morning, many Senate staff have worked in Capitol office space — known as hideaways — as well as at home or in space in Postal Square used during the 2001 attacks.

Before staff are allowed back into Frist’s Dirksen office, cleaning will likely be required to remove any traces of ricin, although a Capitol Police spokeswoman could not confirm if a method has been selected. Ricin, a toxin, is derived from castor beans.

An EPA official said the options include heating various objects or using a bleach-based solution to wipe down surfaces.

Richard Rupert, the EPA project coordinator who oversaw the $27 million cleanup of the Hart Building, said cleaning Dirksen to remove ricin should be “significantly easier.” Rupert, who is now in Russia, is not involved in the current cleaning.

“With anthrax there was a feeling you practically had to dismantle the building,” said one Democratic aide.