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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Anthrax Probe Is Assailed

Investigation: As unexamined mail piles up, lawmakers are demanding answers from the FBI and the Postal Service.

November 01, 2001|JOSH MEYER and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Two weeks after an anthrax-laced letter was delivered to Capitol Hill, the investigation into the source of lethal germ attacks has been beset by delays, uncertainty and confusion, leaving mountains of mail unexamined for clues or additional tainted letters, authorities and congressional leaders said Wednesday.

Medical experts and criminal investigators said finding new contaminated letters, if there are any, is a top priority since they would help shed light on the scope of the health risk to the public. The unexamined mail also could provide critically important leads about who sent the three tainted letters already recovered by authorities, and how easily the bacteria can spread.

But tons of mail remains stacked up, quarantined and unexamined since mid-October, when dozens of people were exposed to anthrax spores in a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.).

The multi-agency investigation was complicated further Wednesday by the announced retirement of Thomas J. Pickard, the No. 2 official at the FBI. A 27-year veteran, Pickard has been heading the FBI's investigation into the anthrax mailings that have killed four people.

Much of the quarantined mail had been gathered at the central Brentwood postal facility in Washington after the exposure of postal workers there halted delivery. At least 30 tons of that mail has been trucked to Lima, Ohio, where a private firm will irradiate it to kill any anthrax bacteria before sending it back to Washington. There, it will be analyzed by FBI agents and U.S. postal inspectors.

But huge volumes of mail that the FBI has taken from offices on Capitol Hill, in federal agencies and elsewhere in Washington remained in limbo, as did some mail in New York and New Jersey.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said he is so concerned over the delays in inspecting the mail and other aspects of the investigation that he is considering calling for congressional hearings.

Waxman, the ranking minority member on the House Government Reform Committee, said in an interview that he is particularly upset over the lack of answers by authorities to basic questions about the status of the investigation and how they were planning to handle the mail.

"They are dealing with an unprecedented problem and trying to decide how to deal with it in the middle of the emergency," Waxman said of the FBI and the Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service. "It certainly makes me uncomfortable that they have made contradictory statements and not taken common sense actions that they could have taken in the past few weeks."

Concerns That Key Evidence Will be Lost

Waxman and the committee's chairman, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) sent an unusual bipartisan letter late Tuesday to FBI Director Robert Mueller and Postmaster General John E. Potter, criticizing the delays in examining the mail and demanding answers.

They also expressed concern that mail which may have come in contact with the Daschle letter at the Brentwood facility will be sterilized before being examined, "thus potentially destroying the ability to test for cross-contamination."

"We urge you to work together to expedite the testing of collateral mail to answer critical questions about cross-contamination," the two congressmen wrote. "With attention to this matter, we can provide facts to counter the fear that is growing each day."

But by Wednesday evening, Waxman said, he had received no such answers, even as the death of a hospital worker in New York City raised additional questions about how the anthrax spores may be spreading.

"They tell us they are on top of the situation," Waxman said. "It is certainly troubling that they are not giving answers to [our] questions."

Amid conflicting reports about how potentially contaminated mail is being handled, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft refused to say at a Wednesday news conference whether, or how, the FBI is checking mail sent to Washington.

At the Justice Department, mail has been quarantined at an off-site location after a postal facility serving the department tested positive for anthrax.

Mail delivery there and at many other agencies had not resumed as of Wednesday, and congressional officials said they had been given few answers about what would happen to the mail already taken by the FBI.

"We don't know what they're doing with [the mail]," said one congressional aide.

Said another: "We have yet to hear on whether or not [the mail] is going to be returned to us after screening or whether it is going to be incinerated. Frankly, we're hoping for the latter."

FBI officials had little comment, except to say that mail from the Brentwood facility was still in Ohio while mail taken from elsewhere in Washington was moved to a secure facility earlier this week.

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