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House Leaders Hold News Conference on Anthrax

Aired October 17, 2001 - 13:50   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We did hear from the Senate leadership, Senator Daschle, Senator Lot, and now we're about to hear from House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and his Democratic counterpart, you might say, Dick Gephardt.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT (R-IL), HOUSE SPEAKER: Good afternoon. We had a meeting this morning with the president, learned of the situation in the Senate in Senator Daschle's office, conferred with Tom Ridge, Office of Home Security, and conferred, and we decided that probably the best effort for the House of Representatives is to stay in today, do our business, and then adjourn the House tonight and allow members to go home, so that we can come back and do our work on Tuesday.

In the meantime, we've asked the appropriate bodies to come in and do a sweep of the House of Representatives and the campus in the House of Representatives to make sure that there -- we don't know if there's packages that have arrived here or packages that have going through the mailing machine or packages that may have been opened.

We have no reports of that, but we thought that the best and prudent situation was to ask and to do an environmental sweep to make sure that we didn't have any anthrax spores loose and moving around any of our office buildings or in the Capitol itself.

We felt that was the most prudent thing to do so that we could move forward and get the work done that this Congress has to do, especially in this time of very, very severe times in the face of terrorists that want to take away our liberty and freedom. We need to do the work of the American people, we need to make sure that we can do it in a safe environment, and we feel that that is the best track to follow.


First, I want to thank the speaker and Trent Lott and Tom Daschle. We've worked together in concert and unity on these matters, and we continue to do that today.

What we're doing today is really what should happen anywhere in the country where a similar kind of an event might take place. This is the prudent and cautious approach. As the speaker said, we don't know if there's been involvement of any of our buildings. We don't think there is, but we need to make sure. And the best way to do that is to get people out of the buildings and allow the proper authorities, with the proper equipment, to determine whether or not we face any threat from anthrax in any part of any of our buildings.

Let me finally say that this is the new world we're in, but we approach this in a calm and collected way. And that's what we urge and hope all of our citizens will do.

We're in a battle with terrorism. It's a new form of human warfare. It's in our country, as well as other parts of the world. We have to fight back against it in the right way, together, with unity and with resolve.

And that's what we're doing and what we're going to continue to do. And I can assure you that working with the wonderful American people, who have been fabulous throughout this whole period, we're going to win this battle; we're going to overcome terrorism now and forever in this country.

QUESTION: Mr. Speaker, why is the House going out and the Senate staying in? They are -- seem very disdainful of the House.

HASTERT: Well, I'll tell you what, I'm not sure if they're disdainful or not. There was an agreement this morning that we would close our offices this evening -- there was a House and Senate agreement -- and that we would finish our major business. I understand that they're going to go into the Senate pro forma tomorrow morning, but their offices and their buildings would be closed as well.

QUESTION: But does that make any sense? That's where the anthrax was found. Why are you guys going out?

HASTERT: You're going to have to ask the senators that.

QUESTION: There's a vote tomorrow, isn't there?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) about whether there was anthrax found in (OFF-MIKE)

HASTERT: We were told that the stack in the Hart Building, everybody that was in that ventilation cycle was tested and because there was an open ventilation system, there was a flume that came out from that office and the ventilation system was not closed down for a half an hour -- no fault of anybody's, just never confronted that before -- that they took the precaution that it could happen and, you know, that's up to those people who are doing the environmental studies over there to find out.

QUESTION: But you don't know if there was actually (OFF-MIKE)

HASTERT: As I said, it could have happened and...


HASTERT: Sometimes what you've said gets misquoted. But I said, possibility in the tunnels and in the ventilation system. QUESTION: What do you actually know about the grade of the anthrax that was found?

HASTERT: We don't have the tests back, but we know that it was sophisticated, in that it had -- it was very friable; it was almost an aerosol type of a situation, not a powder. And when they opened they envelop, this thing sent out a flume and we have, at recent count, probably 30 people or so that have been infected with it.

QUESTION: Mr. Speaker, there's a report of a package -- suspicious package that actually came to your office and has been taken away. Tell us about that.

HASTERT: The package met the profile -- I guess you'd use -- of something suspicious. We notified the Capitol Police and they took it away.

QUESTION: What's your staff doing about that? Are they taking Cipro?

HASTERT: The people who were in direct contact on that floor and in that office were screened. That's the best thing to do right now.

QUESTION: And no way of knowing whether they were exposed at this point?

HASTERT: Well, they are being screened. They're being tested.

QUESTION: Have you been tested?


QUESTION: Sir, do you think the Hart Building should be shut down since they discovered anthrax and would you shut down (OFF-MIKE) there was something found?

HASTERT: Well, you know, that's up to -- I'm not an air engineer or I'm not somebody who's qualified in the areas of communicable diseases or contagious diseases.

I think it's something that they made that decision. They were prudent in testing the people that were involved. And found those people and, you know, they're treating those people in an appropriate way.

QUESTION: Sir, there's almost 30,000 people who work up here. Should your staff in particular, or any staffers up here among the 30,000 that work up here, have fear? Wouldn't it make sense for them to be afraid?

HASTERT: Well, you know, one of the things that we said is that we're going to carry on business as usual. There are people who would like us to fear. There are people in this world that would like us to be afraid. There are people that would like us not to do the people's business. And we thought it was a prudent step to make sure that these buildings and this campus is free of spores so we can go back and continue to do the work of the American people, and that's what we intend to do.

QUESTION: Is it true that a large number of your members did not want to adjourn and urged you to stay open?

HASTERT: Well, there are a number -- there was a large number that wanted to adjourn yesterday. But we have to do what we think is prudent and right. And we are not going to be -- we were not going to be in session on Friday or on Monday, so it took a period of time to go through and do the tests. And we thought that this was a good block of time and take tomorrow off of the schedule and do that work on Tuesday. We did a little extra work today and so we think this will fit into that schedule nicely. And that's what we did.

We also conferred, of course, with the president, with Tom Ridge, and others that thought that that was apropos as well.

QUESTION: Where are you going to work from tomorrow?

HASTERT: I'm going to be in this area and I'm going to be back in Illinois tomorrow.

QUESTION: Who briefed you on the anthrax? Who told you that it was sophisticated? Because the senators are now saying that it was garden variety anthrax.

HASTERT: You know, we're just saying that the way that it was distributed, with a flume, was unlike anything that we've seen up to this point. Of course, we weren't in contact or saw what happened in the building in Florida or any of those buildings in New York. But this was different from the anthrax that was just out there in an envelope on a white, powdery substance. It actually had a flume and, you know, infected a lot of people.

QUESTION: Is there something that propelled it?

GEPHARDT: No, it was the same as the other situations. But you had now 29 or 30 people who have tested positive. That's a new development. Obviously, that's more than we've seen in these other instances. And it led the people who have looked at this to believe that it is a higher grade, weapon-grade kind of anthrax.

So again, you deal with what's in front of you. And you try to make logical, sensible decisions. And this is what the best judgment of the people that we're talking to in the physician's office and in the CDC about what should be done.

QUESTION: Mr. Gephardt, will you be working here tomorrow?

GEPHARDT: I'll be in the area tomorrow working, and I'll be going back to St. Louis sometime tomorrow night.

QUESTION: On Monday, Capitol Police did a field test and determined almost right away that it was anthrax. Now the package that came to your office has that not been tested? Why is it that you don't know whether it is or it isn't?

HASTERT: Because they've taken it away to be tested.

QUESTION: Was it not opened, is that why they did (OFF-MIKE)

HASTERT: That is correct.

Thank you very much.


WOODRUFF: If the Senate earlier was trying to back away from alarmist signals saying the anthrax found in Senator Daschle's office was a less potent form, we are now hearing a different take on it from the House leadership. We are hearing Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert say when the envelope was opened it was different from other anthrax in that it sent up a flume. It was almost in an aerosol form. At one point he said it is nothing like what we have seen up to this point, different from the anthrax that has been seen elsewhere.

He called it sophisticated, and we just heard House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt say it was a higher grade, even a weapons grade, so we are getting two distinctly different pictures here if you will of the type of anthrax that has turned up in the office of Senator Tom Daschle. Again stressing, 31 people have been exposed, at least in these early preliminary tests. We also have learned a new piece of information: Speaker Hastert saying that a suspicious package was received in his office.

He said it hit the profile, so to speak. And now people on the floor in the area in which the package was received are being screened, are being tested. So yet another area that we will be looking at. Our Kate Snow is there at the Capitol.

Kate, I have to tell you that after listening to the two sides, either one of them is right, or they both have different takes on the same thing.

KATE SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think it is that we have two different takes of the same fact base, Judy, two different versions of how they read the facts that are before us, and it is a bit confusing. Certainly there is some conflicting information.

Let me tell you first about what you just mentioned. We had reported earlier in the day, when all of this was developing that there was a situation in one of Mr. Hastert's offices. He has several offices in the Capitol building. One of them is on the fourth floor of the United Sates Capitol. He has a small number of staff in that office.

I can tell you a little bit more about what's been happening in there. We've been sort of tracking it throughout the day. There was a letter that arrived sometime after September 11, but sometime before today. And given recent events and the fact that we all in the media have been publicizing the look of the letter that went to Senator Daschle and the letter that went to Tom Brokaw at NBC, we have been showing the look of that handwriting, that block-style handwriting. Someone who works for Mr. Hastert noticed that and said, hey, I got a letter that may have looked like that. So, they called in the Capitol authorities to look at this other package in Speaker Hastert's office because they think it may look a little bit like the two letters you are seeing on your screen right now. And they're investigating that, Judy. You heard the speaker say that they are taking appropriate step steps there, they are looking at the suspicious package.

WOODRUFF: Is it from Trenton, New Jersey?

SNOW: We don't know.

WOODRUFF: We don't know.

WALLACE: We don't know that. We just know that it somehow looked similar. I've been told that it was the handwriting that we thought looked similar. I don't want to be real firm on that, but I've have been told that it looked similar. So that's what the question was raised.

It's being looked at. You heard Speaker Hastert say it met the profile of something suspicious. The people who were in direct contact, you heard the speaker say, are being screened, was his word. Whether that means they are being swabbed for anthrax, I'm not clear on that.

But that is an ongoing situation. And then to go back to the main point here, the House leader saying that they think it is a prudent step right now to close down the House office buildings later tonight. And then be out of session until next Tuesday. They're justifying that or explaining that by telling us a little bit more about what they learned this morning about the presence of anthrax and senator Daschle's office, and they're feeling that this is the right course of action to take -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: And Kate, I just have to say I'm struck by the difference in the interpretation, because again you had Speaker Hastert saying, yes, possibly, because it was in this almost aerosol form, lifting up in a flume, was the word that he used. He said its possible we were told it could be in the ventilation system. It is possible it could be in the tunnels. That's not the impression we were getting from the senators.

SNOW: Right. And Judy, just to point out, earlier the speaker made a comment that really did say rather directly that it was in the ventilation system." I think that that is a very important point that it just a possibility that it could have gotten into the ventilation system -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: All right, Kate Snow.

I'm told in a moment our John Karl, who has been talking to or hearing from the office of Senator Tom Daschle will be joining us with a little more information to maybe help us clarify this. We will take a break. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT



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