Skip to main content /HEALTH with /HEALTH

HHS chief: Anthrax terrorism likely domestic

Suspicious letter mailed to Sen. Patrick Leahy's office.
Suspicious letter mailed to Sen. Patrick Leahy's office.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The anthrax-tainted letters sent to a Senate office and to the media are probably the work of a domestic terrorist, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Monday.

He cautioned that authorities still have not identified a culprit.

"Hopefully we will be able to bring this nightmare to an end, but at this point in time we do not know if it's connected with al Qaeda," Thompson told reporters at an unrelated event on nursing homes.

"It's appearing ... more and more likely that it's an individual in America, or individuals," he said.

A suspicious letter discovered Friday in 280 barrels of unopened Capitol Hill mail and addressed to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, is being studied at Fort Detrick, Maryland, home to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

Investigators are hoping a letter sent to a U.S. senator will shed light on who is behind the anthrax attacks. CNN's Susan Candiotti reports (November 20)

Play video
(QuickTime, Real or Windows Media)
Walks: Anthrax deaths could have been avoided 
Leahy letter sole suspicious one in quarantined mail 
Anthrax attacks
 Complete coverage

Initial field tests indicated anthrax contamination

"It's being analyzed and evaluated as for its contents, its potency, and [for] any fingerprints, any hair samples, any other things that may give us some indication of who the individual or individuals are that have perpetrated this terror on America," Thompson said.

On Tuesday, The Associated Press quoted a federal law enforcement official with saying that a sample taken from a plastic evidence bag containing the still-unopened letter to Leahy contains at least 23,000 anthrax spores, enough for more than two lethal doses.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were three times more anthrax spores in the single sample taken from the plastic bag than in any of the other 600 bags of mail examined by the FBI before it found the Leahy letter, the AP reported.

New positive anthrax test

The FBI Monday said the Leahy envelope had not yet been opened yet so scientists from the FBI and the Army together with a panel of outside experts could develop a "strategy to maximize the forensic value" of it.

In a brief written statement, the FBI did not spell out technical steps or provide further findings on its analysis conducted over the weekend.

The FBI did note the Leahy letter is similar to the one received by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle on October 15.

Both were postmarked October 9 from Trenton, New Jersey, both have similar handwritten block-lettering, and both have the same phony return address, a non-existent school.

Those characteristics convince investigators the letters were sent by the same person, the FBI statement said. Two similar letters were sent to NBC News and the New York Post.

Investigators told CNN there was enough powder inside both congressional letters to seep through the envelopes.

Sources told CNN the Leahy letter may have been misdirected through the mail system and sent to the State Department by mistake.

The handwritten ZIP code is 20510 -- the correct one for the senator's office. On the bottom of the letter, however, the bar code from a mail machine reads 20520, the ZIP for mail going to the State Department.

That means the letter may have gone to the State Department mail facility in Sterling, Virginia, where a mail employee contracted inhalation anthrax, the sources said. The employee is expected to recover.

Elsewhere, the Justice Department said Monday two areas of a Bureau of Prisons headquarters mailroom in Washington have tested positive for "scant contamination."

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has characterized the positive results as 'scant contamination' with a minimal risk of inhalation anthrax disease," according to a Justice Department statement.

"We are in the process of consulting with the CDC regarding appropriate medical recommendations for affected BOP personnel, and expect to so advise BOP personnel tomorrow," the statement said.

Barrels of mail

An estimated 635 bags of congressional mail were seized last month after the anthrax-tainted letter was opened in Daschle's office.

Hazardous material experts have finished sorting through the mail, according to an FBI spokesman. The Leahy letter was the only suspicious letter found among 280 barrels of quarantined mail

Authorities are now awaiting word from congressional leaders on what to do with the mail, which has not gone through any decontamination process, the spokesman said.

According to the FBI, the barrel holding the Leahy letter was the only "hot spot" among the congressional mail.

No other letters in the barrel or the others -- held at a facility in Virginia -- have caught the attention of investigators.

The Russell and Dirksen Senate office buildings reopened Monday morning, having been closed over the weekend for anthrax testing after the Leahy letter was discovered.

The Hart building, where the Daschle letter was opened last month, remains closed.

-- CNN correspondents Susan Candiotti and Eileen O'Connor and CNN Justice Department producers Terry Frieden and Bill Mears contributed to this report.




Back to the top