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RESPONSE TO TERROR

New Letter Boosts Domestic Theory on Anthrax Attack

Inquiry: Investigators say they are close to confirming that Daschle and Leahy were the only congressional targets.

November 18, 2001|RONALD BROWNSTEIN and JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The discovery of a second letter to a Democratic U.S. senator apparently containing anthrax has strengthened federal investigators' belief that the attack through the mail is the work of domestic rather than foreign terrorists, officials said Saturday.

After sorting through 268 barrels of quarantined congressional mail, federal investigators found no additional suspicious letters besides an envelope discovered Friday that was addressed to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), officials said. That letter was nearly identical to the anthrax-laced letter sent last month to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), said Dan Mihalko, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of the Postal Service.

The unopened letter to Leahy bore the same Trenton, N.J., postmark, date, fictitious return address and slanted, block-lettered writing as the tainted envelope sent to Daschle.

Federal investigators said they were close to confirming that the two Democratic senators were apparently the only congressional targets of the attack. They said the finding may tilt the burden of suspicion toward groups with a domestic political agenda, according to Mihalko and others.

"It leans a little more toward the idea that it's domestic as opposed to someone affiliated with the [Sept. 11] tragedy," Mihalko said. "It would seem to indicate something domestic as opposed to foreign, but nobody is willing to discount anything at this point."

As the investigation continued, congressional officials Saturday again closed the Russell and Dirksen Senate office buildings for a new round of environmental testing. The Leahy letter was sent to the U.S. Army lab at Ft. Detrick, Md., for a final determination on whether it contained anthrax. Test results are expected as soon as today.

Investigators are now pursuing any potential links between Leahy and Daschle, including joint legislative efforts that may have affected a particular group. They also are trying to determine whether they had any ties to the media outlets that also received tainted letters.

Daschle, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post have received letters addressed in a similar handwriting style that contained anthrax. "You don't need to be a handwriting expert to know that's the same" handwriting, Leahy said at a news conference Saturday.

The political alignment of the targets, though, doesn't follow as clear a pattern. While Daschle and Leahy are to the left of center, Brokaw is considered relatively impartial--conservative media critics have not targeted him as much as other network anchors--and the New York Post is a staunchly conservative publication.

Investigators began the process of examining the letter itself for clues and backtracking to determine from where it was sent, Mihalko said. Although the letter bore the same Trenton postmark and date as the Daschle letter, it is possible it may have originated from another mail drop, he said.

The Leahy letter may contain a wealth of clues, such as fingerprints, unlike the Daschle letter, which has given authorities little to go on, said Postal Inspector Lori Groen in Washington. "It may be that one piece of the puzzle that we have been looking for," she said.

Groen cautioned, however, that profiling the mailer of such letters is speculative.

At his news conference Saturday, Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he did not know why terrorists would target him. But he also expressed hope that the new letter would help law enforcement authorities crack the frustrating case.

"I'm hoping that the one bright light might be that the letter would give us further evidence about who is doing this," Leahy told reporters.

Meanwhile, information emerged that unusual precautions in Leahy's office may have prevented the contents of the letter from being opened. Leahy aides said they quarantined all mail to the office Oct. 12, after news reports of the letter sent to Brokaw. Daschle aides opened the letter to his office three days later, releasing the anthrax into the air in his suite in the Hart Senate Office Building. That building remains closed.

"That was a very prudent precaution for them to take," said Lt. Dan Nichols, spokesman for the Capitol Police. "Clearly they made an educated decision for their own protection."

Law enforcement officials, however, said they have not determined whether the letter was ever delivered to Leahy's office in the Russell building or was instead caught earlier in the system when all Senate mail was quarantined Oct. 15.

All mail to Congress was shut down after the letter to Daschle was discovered. Mail service to the legislators has not been resumed.

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