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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Anthrax Threats Mass Mailed to Abortion Clinics

Security: More than 200 facilities receive FedEx packages, while more are intercepted en route to West Coast.

November 09, 2001|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — FedEx packages containing a white powder and the threat: "This contains anthrax. You're going to die," arrived Thursday morning at more than 200 abortion clinics in the Midwest and along the East Coast.

The packages, sent overnight from drop boxes in Virginia and Philadelphia, mark the second mass mailing signed by the Army of God, a group of antiabortion extremists who have claimed responsibility for killing doctors who perform abortions and for bombing clinics.

Additional packages en route to the West Coast were stopped before being delivered, officials from the targeted organizations said. Authorities are testing the powder but do not believe it contains anthrax or another toxic substance.

But leading abortion-rights organizations expressed deep concerns about the new mailings, which come less than a month after more than 250 similar letters were sent to abortion clinics through the U.S postal system. The directors of Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Federation and the Feminist Majority on Thursday asked for a meeting with Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Director Thomas J. Ridge.

The latest round of letters circumvented the groups' policies against opening mail from unknown sources by using their corporate FedEx numbers and the names of top security officials.

Jarred Nerves at Organizations

Three known anthrax-contaminated letters have been sent via the U.S. mail to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post--with more than 30,000 Americans put on antibiotics as a result. So far, four people have died in the anthrax attacks and at least 13 others have become ill.

Postal authorities have identified more than 12,000 hoaxes, threats and suspicious mailings--which average 637 a day--since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A person convicted of knowingly mailing threatening letters faces 20 years imprisonment per count, a fine, or both.

The hundreds of threatening letters sent to abortion clinics, believed to represent the largest group of such mailings, have jarred nerves at organizations that are accustomed to dealing with threats. Whereas previous threatening letters from the Army of God mentioned a subgroup called the Virginia Dare Chapter, recent anthrax threats have referred to the Virginia Dare Cell, a term sometimes used to refer to terrorist groups.

"The country needs to hear the attorney general and Tom Ridge publicly say this is an abhorrent crime and they will make sure every resource that law enforcement needs will be used to find out who is behind this," said Ann Glazier, director of security for Planned Parenthood.

Seeking to Meet With Ashcroft

Glazier and officials from other organizations that received letters Thursday--and have been contending for years with bomb scares and other threats--said they have asked since June for a meeting with Ashcroft. Abortion-rights groups bitterly opposed Ashcroft's nomination to the nation's top law enforcement job out of concern that his personal opposition to the legalization of abortion would get in the way of his mandate to uphold the law.

During his confirmation hearings Ashcroft promised to meet with concerned groups.

"We feel we have a compelling concern not only for reproductive health clinics but for the country on the whole," said Glazier--whose name was used on the return addresses of packages sent to 132 affiliates. "If some terrorist is going to do this for us, who is the next target? Who will not be prepared the way we have been prepared?"

Recipients of the letters wonder when the threats might become reality.

"All of our member clinics, as well as law enforcement authorities, have to take the threats very seriously," said Vicki Saporta, the National Abortion Federation's executive director.

Her group's Washington headquarters was evacuated because of a bomb threat Thursday morning about the same time calls began pouring in about the deliveries.

"We don't know when the hoax will cease and actual anthrax will be sent," Saporta said. "The Army of God members have said they wouldn't hesitate to use anthrax if they had it."

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