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RESPONSE TO TERROR

2nd Daschle Letter Said to Be a Hoax

Mail: Threatening missive, postmarked London, contains powder. Tests for anthrax are negative.

January 04, 2002|NICK ANDERSON and JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — For the second time in three months, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has opened a suspicious envelope containing a "threatening" letter and a powdery substance--but this one is believed to be a hoax, authorities said Thursday.

Unlike the first episode in October, when enough deadly anthrax spores were released to force the closure of a Senate office building, preliminary field tests have shown that the contents of the latest piece of mail--which was found Thursday--are not hazardous, according to federal law enforcement officials and Capitol Hill police. The area around the majority leader's office in the Capitol was closed briefly while the tests were conducted.

Daschle called it a "copycat" letter.

"It said this was anthrax, death to America, something to that effect, and 'Stop the bombing' was the only phrase that was new," Daschle told reporters.

A law enforcement official said the letter was postmarked London, England--not New Jersey, like the original anthrax-tainted letter sent to Daschle's office in the Hart Senate Office Building.

"From every indication, it does not appear to be anything other than a harmless powder," said U.S. Postal Inspection Service spokesman Dan Mihalko. "We don't have anything there to indicate that there is any danger."

"From the standpoint of it being threatening, we will investigate," Mihalko said.

Since mid-October, when the first anthrax-laced letter was received, all mail sent to Capitol Hill has been irradiated as a precaution against hazardous biological agents. Police also put the mail through a second security screening procedure that they declined to describe.

Lt. Dan Nichols of the Capitol Police said that Daschle's staff reported finding a "suspicious letter" in the senator's second-floor suite in the Capitol. The letter, Nichols said, "had a threatening note inside and a powdery substance inside of the letter."

Police and FBI personnel responded immediately, sealing off corridors around Daschle's offices and briefly barring entry to the Capitol. The building, however, was not evacuated. Some tourists were said to be in the Capitol at the time but well removed from the scene.

The Capitol Police and postal inspectors opened a criminal investigation into Thursday's incident. Citing that investigation, Nichols said he could not discuss the letter's contents, postmark or appearance.

Postal authorities said that the field test conducted on the letter looks for the anthrax DNA that remains even after the spores are irradiated.

"So when it doesn't even give us a positive, we're pretty certain that there was nothing in it ever that was a danger," said Mihalko. The letter is undergoing more tests as a precautionary measure, authorities said.

"Sen. Daschle is well aware of the situation," Nichols said at an impromptu briefing. "He is safe. Everyone's very confident the situation is well in hand."

The incident sent jitters through a congressional staff already on edge since Capitol Hill became the scene of a major biological attack through the mails.

On Oct. 15, a Daschle aide working in another suite--in the Hart Senate Office Building, across Constitution Avenue from the Capitol--opened an anthrax-tainted letter. More than two dozen Senate aides and police officers were exposed to the bacteria at the time, though none has become sick.

The Hart building has been closed since Oct. 17 as part of a complex, months-long cleanup effort. After several delays, Senate leaders now say they hope to reopen the building before Congress reconvenes later this month. Fifty senators have offices in the Hart building.

Authorities also said Thursday that, even though they have spent months investigating the source of the initial anthrax letters, they are not close to identifying and arresting who sent them.

"We've had a lot of theories and a lot of trails we've looked at, but nothing has panned out," said one federal law enforcement official.

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Associated Press contributed to this report.

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