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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Letter to Sen. Leahy Likely Has Anthrax

Search: Investigators say there are similarities between this unopened envelope found amid sealed Senate mail and other tainted pieces.

November 17, 2001|MEGAN GARVEY and EDMUND SANDERS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — A new letter that appears to contain anthrax--this one addressed to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont--was discovered Friday by FBI agents searching through tons of Capitol Hill mail that had been quarantined since a letter containing the deadly spores was opened here a month ago.

The envelope, which had not been opened, aroused suspicion because it bore the same postmark and date as the anthrax-laden envelope sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) from Trenton, N.J., on Oct. 9.

The envelope also was addressed in block handwriting similar to the anthrax-laced letters sent to Daschle, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post, a Justice Department official said.

"It appears to contain anthrax based on the similarity of this letter to the others . . . . And you can feel that there's something inside," the official said.

The discovery may provide a much-needed break to government investigators who have made little headway with the clues discovered so far in a bioterrorism attack that has killed four people and sickened at least 13 others.

Criminal investigators and federal health officials have said for several weeks that they believes there are more undiscovered anthrax-contaminated letters.

If the Leahy letter tests positive for anthrax, it may help explain why so many postal workers got sick from handling mail that was headed for Washington, D.C.

Eight postal employees in Washington and New Jersey contracted anthrax, including two who died. And traces of anthrax spores have been found at dozens of buildings that received mail from Trenton and Washington postal hubs that processed anthrax-tainted letters.

Until now, health officials have theorized that the infections and the widespread contamination were largely caused by the Daschle letter, which contained a fine powder described by investigators as highly potent.

The investigation began in early October when a 63-year-old Florida tabloid photo editor became the first inhalation anthrax death in the U.S. since 1976.

The Florida victim was one of two employees at Boca Raton-based American Media Inc. to contract the more serious inhaled form of the disease, although no letter was recovered at the company. Also, an assistant to CBS News anchor Dan Ratherand the infant son of an ABC News producer contracted the skin form of the disease, although no letters were located at those media outlets.

And State Department officials said this week they will begin searching for a contaminated letter that they believe caused the inhalation anthrax infection of a 59-year-old mail room worker.

Still unknown, however, is how a New York hospital stockroom worker contracted inhalation anthrax late last month in a case that has left investigators baffled. FBI officials said Friday they still have no clue how Kathy T. Nguyen, 61, came in contact with enough anthrax spores to kill her.

The discovery of the Leahy letter came late Friday as FBI agents dressed in hazardous material suits combed through 250 barrels of mail that had been sequestered since the Daschle letter was opened Oct. 15. While most Washington-area mail has been sent to Ohio for irradiation, the Capitol Hill mail was set aside by investigators who suspected it might yield clues and evidence.

A law enforcement official said agents, who began working at a special facility in Northern Virginia earlier this week, had made their way through about 100 barrels before finding the letter.

The Leahy letter "appears in every respect to be similar to the other anthrax-laced letters," the FBI said in a statement.

"Further testing will be conducted in an effort to confirm the presence of anthrax and examine its contents to compare it with . . . the other letters," the FBI said.

One preliminary test on the envelope has come back positive for anthrax spores, according to a source familiar with the investigation.

Capitol Police said late Friday night that the Russell Senate Office Building where Leahy has an office and the neighboring Dirksen building would be closed this afternoon for additional testing. The Hart Senate Office Building has remained closed since the Daschle letter was opened there and anthrax spores were released into the air.

It was unclear if the letter ever reached Leahy's office in the Russell building, but environmental tests in his office have not been positive and none of his staffers has shown symptoms of anthrax infection.

FBI Director Robert Mueller called the Democratic senator at 6 p.m. Friday to inform him of the discovery.

"I am confident they are taking the appropriate steps and that eventually they will find this person," Leahy said in a statement. "Our Senate leaders and officers did the right thing in isolating the Senate's mail, and my staff and I appreciate all that is being done to resolve this threat."

News of the letter came after most of Leahy's staff had gone home for the weekend. Workers were being called late Friday and told of the discovery, a Leahy aide said.

Leahy is one of the most liberal members of Congress and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee--a position he was elevated to earlier this year when his fellow Vermonter James M. Jeffords left the Republican Party to become an independent.

A week ago, the FBI said it was increasingly convinced that the person behind the recent anthrax attacks is an angry loner in the United States who has no links to terrorist groups. Based on case studies, handwriting analysis and other evidence, authorities said they are probably looking for an adult male with at least limited scientific expertise.

*

Times staff writers Janet Hook, Eric Lichtblau and Josh Meyer contributed to this report.

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