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Jonathan Karl: Anthrax on Capitol Hill

Jonathan Karl is a congressional correspondent for CNN. He joined the chat room from Washington, D.C.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Jonathan Karl , and welcome.


CNN: Anthrax was discovered in yet another office area on Capitol Hill. What are the details?

KARL: This is alarming, at least somewhat alarming, because they found a trace of anthrax in the section of the Hart building that's nowhere near Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office. Up until now, it's all been found right around Daschle's office. But now they've found a very small trace of anthrax in a completely different area. I should emphasize that it is described to us as a small trace.

CNN: The House passed the antiterrorism bill yesterday. What does it entail, and did they do so in direct response to all that's happened on Capitol Hill directly?

KARL: The anti terrorism bill is more a product of September 11 than a product of what's happened with anthrax on Capitol Hill. Attorney General John Ashcroft had been arguing for speedy passage of this bill for almost six weeks. But the interesting note on this, which I don't think has really been noted much, is that they -- by "they" I mean Senate and House negotiators, including the House Speaker, and the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- actually came to their final agreement on this bill on the very day that the House shut down because of the anthrax scare. So, amidst all the chaos surrounding the anthrax scare, the top leaders were banging out a final agreement on the antiterrorism bill. It's a strange situation.

As for what's in it, it's a complicated bill, but the most important provisions include making it easier for law enforcement to get wire taps, allowing the Attorney General to detain non-citizens without a charge for up to seven days, allowing prosecutors to share secret Grand Jury information with intelligence officials throughout the government, and finally, several provisions making it easier to crack down on money laundering.

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    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Jonathan, this morning a few reports seemed to indicate that the FBI may be leaning towards a domestic group behind this anthrax attack. What have you heard?

    KARL: Well, nothing conclusive on that. You have to understand that there's been so much conflicting information coming out, almost on an hour by hour basis, that it's difficult to gauge what's going on. There was a report that CBS had that a handwriting analyst had concluded that the handwriting in those letters appeared to be from someone for whom English is a first language. But other experts I've spoken to say there's been no such conclusion. So, it's a rapidly evolving investigation. Information is frequently contradictory. For those of us trying to follow this, it has been at times rather frustrating.

    It's possible... based on the information we know so far, that somebody was able to acquire this anthrax on the black market. One of the things that most concerns the experts is that the former Soviet Union's supply, not only of anthrax, but of a wide range of other biological weapons, has not been stored in the most secure way, and it has long been a concern that some of that vast stockpile of bioweapons could have made it onto the black market.

    CNN: We saw video yesterday of Congress members literally working in the parking lot. Is it really that bad?

    KARL: Well, it's getting better. They opened two more House office buildings today, and they may soon be able to open another Senate office building. But yes, it was really bad, especially in the House of Representatives -- 435 members with no place to go. While it's true that they did provide temporary workspace at an off-site location, most members found that temporary workspace unhelpful, because it was too far away, and also didn't have compatible computers for them to access the Congressional computer system. So, if you looked at the parking lot outside the Capitol Building, it looked all day long like a tailgate party at a college football game.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Jonathan, how do Government workers feel about having to go back into these buildings after they are cleared of contaminants?

    KARL: One senator, Conrad Burns of Montana, actually went yesterday into one of those closed buildings. He wasn't allowed to, but he wanted to get his checkbook, because he had bills to pay. He just marched right in. The Capitol Police guarding the building did not stop a senator. So clearly, some people are not frightened, but others are very concerned. It's been frightening watching people in moonsuits walking into these buildings and realizing that most of us spend time in those buildings between the time that the Daschle letter was opened, and the time the buildings were actually shut down.

    CNN: Tell us the latest on reports that a journalist covering Capitol Hill is showing signs of anthrax.

    KARL: We don't know who the journalist is, but it's a member of the electronic media, not necessarily a reporter. You can imagine that on that day when Daschle's letter was opened, there were any number of camera crews and sound technicians in the building. So it wasn't necessarily a reporter.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: What about the Mall, tourists and the area in general -- is there any sign of people being wary of the area?

    KARL: Well, really ever since September 11, there has been a noticeable drop in the number of tourists in the areas surrounding the Capitol and the National Mall. Of course, public access to the Capitol Building itself has been dramatically restricted. For instance, public tours of the building have been postponed indefinitely.

    CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?

    KARL: It's been interesting watching public officials trying to strike a balance between getting all the information out there that people need to protect themselves, and not trying to scare people. In trying to strike that balance between calming people and making sure they're prepared, the flow of information has been anything but smooth. Frankly, as we're learning, a lot of the so-called experts really don't understand the nature of the threat we're dealing with, and they're learning as they go along.

    One last comment, the Capitol Hill physician said this morning that there has never been a study done on humans and anthrax exposure, and then said, essentially, that he is doing that study now. So as this is happening, we're learning about the nature of the bacterium, and what it does to people, and we're learning about how it responds to antibiotics, and despite all of that, it's important to know that the threat seems to have been contained, but it's less than reassuring to realize how little we really know.

    CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

    KARL: Thank you!

    Jonathan Karl joined the chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the chat which took place on Thursday, October 25, 2001.


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