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Fleischer Announces Discovery of Anthrax at Remote Mail Handling Facility for White House Mail

Aired October 23, 2001 - 15:49   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: Good afternoon. At my briefing earlier today I said that the White House would report any new developments should they occur. Early this afternoon, a positive anthrax culture was found at the remote mail site that serves the White House. This is a delivery site that is located some miles away from the White House that handles all White House mail. Test results showed it to be positive for a small concentration of anthrax.

The facility has been closed for further testing and decontamination. Tests will be performed on all mail received at this site to determine its source. All employees at this site are being swabbed and tested. Mail room employees at the White House will also be swabbed and tested, and environmental sampling throughout the White House has all shown negative. I will be happy to answer any questions -- Martin.

QUESTION: Was there a specific letter or package that was tested?

FLEISCHER: It's too soon to say. They are going to be going through that mail to determine what the source may be. It was -- let me fill you in. It was found on what's called a slitter, which is a mechanical device that opens the mail. It was not found on mail itself. The determination of the investigation will now being to go through the mail to determine what the source may be. But it was a small concentration that was found on the slitter.

QUESTION: You said environmental tests have been done within the White House?

FLEISCHER: David, suffice it to say that prior to September 11th, as well as after September 11, the White House has always had extraordinary precautions in place. They have even been enhanced after September 11. So there has been a regular program here of environmental sampling at the White House even prior to this discovery. All the environmental sampling to date has shown negative.

And we will -- as just indicated -- if anything is positive, we will of course report it. There is nothing to report. All is negative.

QUESTION: Any precautionary step at the White House, any part of the complex have been antibiotics? Has anybody taken any precautionary steps at all?

FLEISCHER: The answer to that remains the same as what I indicated earlier. We do not discuss that with the White House staff as a matter of routine. In the case of this discovery at the remote site, we will share that information because it applies to the specific case -- David.

QUESTION: Are they testing anybody out at the remote site?

FLEISCHER: I indicated yes. There was -- testing and swabbing has occurred and antibiotics will be available to anybody there.

QUESTION: Was this discovery based on...

QUESTION: You said something about mail room employees here at the White House?

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: Are they being swabbed?

FLEISCHER: They will be swabbed and tested and on the antibiotics. That will be a determination that is made based on what the results are. I think -- I'll have to check with the medical staff to see if antibiotics will be provided earlier than that.

QUESTION: Is that in the West Wing or the building across the street?

FLEISCHER: Mail room handlers. Mail room employees. They are located -- I do not believe they are in the West Wing itself -- Ron.

QUESTION: How far away is the off-site facility? And how can you be sure that..

FLEISCHER: The off-site facility is at military facility located miles away from the White House itself.

QUESTION: How can you be sure that no one else in the White House has come in contact with this letter, and someone has exposed to anthrax besides the mail room employees?

FLEISCHER: Suffice it to say that as a result of many of the security precautions that have been put in place since September 11, we have high confidence that that is not the case. But the tests will be done on the basis of where the doctors and security personnel determine is the most logical places to test. That is why, for example, the mail room employees will be tested.

QUESTION: Have you tested in the West Wing?

FLEISCHER: Not as a result of this. Ron? Kelly?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: There are a variety of security procedures that were already in place, and I am not going to go beyond that discussing it -- Kelly.

QUESTION: This facility you tested. Was this the first test that was done that came positive, or has it been tested periodically and that this is the first time you discovered a positive sample at this facility?

FLEISCHER: As I said, many procedures have been in place prior to September 11. They were enhanced since September 11. This is a result of some of the enhanced testing procedures since September 11th.

QUESTION: Since September 11. So there have been tests under way and have tests, and this is the first time you have a positive?

FLEISCHER: That's what I just said. That's correct -- Bill.

QUESTION: When exactly was it discovered?

FLEISCHER: The positive culture was found late this morning by -- the Secret Service was informed. senior White House staff was informed at about 12:30, 12:45 this afternoon. And then I was provided with that information. I was in the middle of this briefing at that time. I was provided with that information at approximately 2:00.

QUESTION: A routine test was done today or yesterday? Was it a routine test?

FLEISCHER: The test was done as a result of the enhanced procedures put in place since September 11th, and the positive culture was found today -- was determined to be positive today.

QUESTION: Was this an ongoing test that is done frequently on this piece of equipment?

FLEISCHER: There have been a series of enhanced security procedures that have been in place. This is first test that has come back positive. If other tests were done prior to that, I do not know. I only know about the test that came back positive, the results of which we got this morning. Jim? Jim?

QUESTION: The sample was found on the slitter, meaning one assumes it opened some envelope. Have you found the piece of mail that left that sample on the slitter? Have you been able to determine if it was...

FLEISCHER: No. As I indicated, the investigation is beginning and they are going to try to find the source of it.

QUESTION: Obviously your fear is that an envelope was opened mechanically and then passed on to someone here in the White House.

FLEISCHER: Or maybe somebody at the facility. As I have said, there have been a series of security precautions that have been put in place here at the White House, which give us high confidence that there is not an issue here at the White House itself. QUESTION: How many White House received mail that might have been opened by that slitter?

FLEISCHER: As I indicated, there have been a series of security precautions put in place that give us high confidence.

QUESTION: Who is at risk? Which federal employees might be at risk from the mail that contained the anthrax opened by that slitter?

FLEISCHER: On the advice of the professionals who are involved in this, which are the health professionals and the security professionals, the people who work at the remote facility will all be swabbed and tested and the mail room employees here at the White House will be swabbed and tested.

QUESTION: Are you telling us -- are you telling us in effect that the reason you know that no one else needs to be swabbed is that the mail has never -- hasn't gotten beyond the mail room since September 11, that it's not getting to senior employees?

FLEISCHER: I am not going to go into all the details about the security procedures that are in place, Ron. But again, the confidence is high about the White House as a result of the enhanced security procedures that are put in place.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Again, I'm not going to get into all the details of the security -- Kelly.

QUESTION: What other facilities, though, where does this mail go besides the White House? Are there other federal agencies that get this mail? Any other federal employees that get this mail besides here at the White House?

FLEISCHER: The only other entity that I know that gets this mail is one federal agency. They have been notified about it. And they will also receive the same type of treatment.

QUESTION: What agency?

FLEISCHER: The Secret Service.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How does it affect operations at the White House from day to day? Are there any shutdowns in operations that aren't going to be going forward?

FLEISCHER: No, it has not changed anything at the White House. The environmental sampling that had been in place continues here at the White House. And as I indicated, all the results of the environmental sampling -- which is, if you think about it, one of the best precautions you can take, is to go in and take look at various areas around the White House to determine if there is anything positive or negative involving the physical space of the White House. And as I said, all tests have come back negative. QUESTION: You said that there is a high level of confidence that the White House is OK. But technically, is there a chance that a piece of this mail is in the White House? Just to clarify.

FLEISCHER: I can only report to you what has been passed on to me and faithfully report it to you on the basis of what the security people have told me. That is their analysis -- John.

QUESTION: Ari, you said that you didn't know the results of any previous testing on this piece of equipment. But do you know when that piece of equipment was last tested?

FLEISCHER: I know that the test result was determined late this morning and shared with the White House at that time.

QUESTION: Do you know when this piece of equipment showed its last negative test? I mean, is this done on an hourly basis?

FLEISCHER: No, I said I was only informed about the positive test. I do not know about all the tests that came back negative in each instance.

QUESTION: So you do not know when that piece of equipment was last tested.

FLEISCHER: That is correct. That is what I said. That's correct.

QUESTION: Ari, when was the president informed? Who told him, and what was his reaction?

FLEISCHER: The president was informed some time ago, some hours ago. I talked to him about it about 45 minutes ago. He had already been informed. And the president also has confidence in the security procedures that are in place at the White House.

The president expressed his concern for the people who work at the facility. But the president also said that this is another example of how this is a two-front war. That there are people who seek to do evil to this country, that there are people who mean us harm. And they have mailed letters, obviously, to high-impact places: the news media. Majority Leader Daschle. Perhaps in this case to the White House.

The president understands that these are enemies that we face who are seeking to create the most disruption in our society. He is determined not to let them succeed. We will take three more.

QUESTION: Ari, do you have confidence -- or is the White House confident -- that this letter or document, whatever this piece of mail is, can be tracked either through routing codes or some other internal mechanism that mail that's opened and forwarded to the White House can...?

FLEISCHER: Dick, that's a question the investigators will have to answer once they determine what source was. The first step is to determine the source, and then they will be able to gather more information about that source -- April.

QUESTION: Ari, this is a huge campus with a lot of people. It's already been said -- you said that the slitter has detected some and it's not --you haven't let us know that some of this mail might have gotten out. But has anyone here started swabbing or made requests to have the federal government or the federal doctors here take a look at them and start swabbing? Have you been swabbed, and anybody over here been swabbed yet?

FLEISCHER: Again, anything dealing with the existing procedures separate and apart from this that are result of White House security precautions, I'm not going to discuss. That's the answer to your question. As a result of this, I did share with you the information about who has been and who will be swabbed and tested -- April.

QUESTION: When it comes to the press, it comes from the west, it comes all over this place. Do you recommend that everyone here as well might --use common sense -- possibly get swabbed?

FLEISCHER: Again, the White House has high confidence as a result of the security precautions that are in place -- David. This will be the last question.

QUESTION: Ari, are you saying that health officials have been doing environmental tests at the White House protectively since September 11 or around that time?

FLEISCHER: That is correct.

DAVID: And so you have been doing that absent any evidence to suggest that there may be anthrax present?

FLEISCHER: David, as can you imagine, even prior to September 11, similar things have been done at the White House in terms of testing and precautions and procedures separate and apart from anything involving anthrax.

The White House has always, unfortunately, been a target, a target for terrorist, a target for people who have shot at the building. That's no surprise to you or to the American people. So prior to September 11, there was a series of tests that have been in place for the White House as a result of its unique nature. Those tests were enhanced after September 11.

QUESTION: Therefore the protocols that you discussed earlier today that would imply to federal facilities like post offices around the country that were being followed that indicated there was no need test at the Brentwood facility and so forth, those are not the protocols that were followed here because you needed to be extra careful?

FLEISCHER: Actually on that point, if you look at the remote delivery site in the same way you do as the sub stations of D.C., the sub stations are being checked also and their equipment. So that is similar. But as I mentioned, there is no other institution like the White House. There is no other target, unfortunately, like the president. Therefore, the White House has always had a unique and different set of security precautions and continues to have that.

QUESTION: Can I just ask you again, because you don't seem to be waving us off this point, has all outside mail been cut off to the White House? How else could you be so certain?

FLEISCHER: I've answered the question as best I can. Did the pre-September 11 tests, that you talk of, that have been in place for a long time because this place is a target...

QUESTION: Do they include tests for anthrax?

FLEISCHER: I am not going to get into all of the degrees of the testing that have been done. That's part of the security regimen of the White House. We do not indicate that level of specificity about what has been tested and what has not been tested. Thank you, everybody.

WOODRUFF: White House press spokesman Ari Fleischer answering a blizzard of questions after a very disturbing revelation on his part, that earlier today at a remote mail-handling facility, he told us that at a military base miles from the White House, a quantity of anthrax was found on what he described as a slitter -- a machine that opens the letters that are destined for either the White House, the executive office buildings and the Secret Service.

Beyond that, we have very little information. We know that he said that at this point all of the employees who work at that site at the remote site are being swabbed and tested. Antibiotics are being provided. He said the same thing about the mail room at the White House. He said the site is being environmentally tested again at the White House. The mail room again swabbed and tests for the employees at the White House.

Our senior White House correspondent John king joins us now. John, this comes like a bolt out of the blue.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Sounds like a bolt out of the blue, Judy, but perhaps not unexpected. If there are anthrax letters being mailed to what Mr. Fleischer called "high importance" targets, "high impact" targets like the U.S. Capitol, like the offices of key media outlets in the United States, one would expect the president would be a target as well, or the White House complex.

Let's give a little bit of information that did not come out in that briefing that we are aware of. No. 1, the mail that comes to the White House initially when it comes into the District of Columbia is processed that very same Brentwood facility where the two postal workers have died of anthrax and there are, I believe as of now, two cases of inhalation anthrax that have been diagnosed in other employees at that facility.

So No. 1, there will be an immediate link to the Brentwood facility already in the news. No. 2, one other agency's mail goes through that same facility: the United States Secret Service, which has some employees obviously inside the gates of the White House campus also some offices in the nearby area to the White House. So we will check in there as well.

No. 3, you heard Ari Fleischer say repeatedly he was confident that the anthrax itself could not make it into the White House. He refused to discuss why he was so confident, why he would not discuss the security precautions here. But we also know earlier in the day he did say the U.S. postal service is now rushing to buy the most up to date scanners that included radiation technology, that he said could kill the virus.

And during that briefing I made a quick phone call and a senior official telling me that it was safe to assume the White House already has those facilities. So we will check in on that in the hours ahead. But Mr. Fleischer saying this is a subject of concern. The mail rooms and mail workers inside the complex will be tested.

But he voiced high confidence that the anthrax discovered on the slitting machine had not made it into the White House complex, but obviously, given the high profile of the case and concerns they will conduct additional testing -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: John, I think it is a an important point, a number of important points we want to touch on here, but just to stress again what you stressed, and it is in a press release from the Secret Service this afternoon and that is that the mail at this remote site of a military base miles from the White House is processed through the Brentwood facility in Washington.

So that does mean that it is possible that if there were a number of evidences of anthrax at Brentwood, which we now know to be the case, it is possible that that got on a piece of mail to the White House. It is also very possible that someone sent a letter to the White House, to the executive office building or to the Secret Service with anthrax in it.

KING: And we will seek to answer those questions. But there is a reason the mail is brought from Brentwood then to the military base, not from Brentwood immediately to the White House. And that is the additional layer of security Ari Fleischer was talking about. Some of it in place well in advance of the September 11 attacks, including environmental testing from time to time here at the White House. Not as frequently as has been the case since the September 11 attacks and since the anthrax cases have been made, but even before September 11 there were periodic testings conducted on the air inside the White House complex, including inside the White House residence and office complex as well just as a precaution.

Obviously the pace and the number of those tests intensified since September 11. But that mail goes from Brentwood then to the military base for just that reason, for additional security tests before it then enters the White House complex. And additional steps have been taken in recent days including packages we at CNN and other media outlets tried to get shipped to us.

Additional precautions being taken as well as the government responds and on a daily basis, amends just how it responds to these anthrax cases and anthrax scares. WOODRUFF: John, just one other point and then I want to bring in Elizabeth Cohen, our medical respond correspondent, and that is just stressing what Ari Fleischer said, the mail room handlers who work with the White House mail are not in the West Wing itself. Presumably that means they are in one of the executive office buildings either across the drive way there or across the street.

KING: The Main facility is in the new executive office building which is across the street on 17th street. But then of course mail comes processed in through much of it, through the old executive office building where it is separated then to different offices. The vice president has an office there, the National Security has an office there, so it would get segregated if you will, once it makes its way into the old executive office building, and then delivered office by office, the stuff that comes over to the West Wing.

And again, if it is coming into the West Wing and into the White House itself, even additional security precautions are taken.

WOODRUFF: All right, John, if you would stand by. I do want to bring Elizabeth Cohen in. But I want to reiterate what John alluded to. We have received late word that two more workers from the Brentwood Postal Facility here in Washington and now being treated for possible inhalation anthrax at a Silver Spring, Maryland hospital. Now this is in a suburb of Washington.

These two, if this is the case, which these reports in the Associated Press indicate , this would be two more people who are identified as being -- having possibly been exposed to anthrax. Both of them apparently employed at the Brentwood facility.

Elizabeth Cohen, you were listening to Ari's news conference?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I was.

WOODRUFF: Did it sound to you as if the procedures that he described that are being taken at that remote facility and at the White House mail room are pretty much in line with what we have seen elsewhere?

COHEN: Absolutely. It is the standard protocol, now I guess you could you even say, because there have been so many incidents like that.

They go in there with -- the question they are asking is, where did these spores originate? In other words, where was the letter opened? Or where did they first manage to get into the atmosphere? And how far did it spread?

So, what they do is they do what is called environmental testing, which is a fancy way of saying testing the air, testing table tops, testing surfaces to see where it is and where it has spread to. And then they also test people's noses to see how far the bacteria went.

But I want to talk about that testing because it gets very confusing. We need to sort of take a step back here. When they test people's noses, when they do those swabs and they turn out to be negative, that does not necessarily mean that the person was not infected with anthrax.

Anthrax clears the nose after a matter of time and goes into the lungs. So, it could be hours and it could be days. No one has a really particular number there. So that you could test someone's nose. It could look negative. but they might very well be infected.

Conversely, you could you swab someone's nose and it could be positive and they may be OK. The spores may be in the nose but may be exhaled out and so the person won't get infected. But that's what they do. The first thing they do is they go if there and see how far did these spores go? How many people seem to have been er affected by it? And what surfaces seem to have been affected.

In other words, if they find someone on the opposite side of the room who has spores in their nose, that means that those spores reached across the room -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Elizabeth, whatever testing is going on, and your description sounds consistent with what we were hearing earlier, we now know that the government is taking a more aggressive approach. We heard this earlier today from officials, from Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, saying we are not waiting now in every instance, for the testing.

We want to get the antibiotics out there. That's what they are doing here in Washington for mail handlers, not just at Brentwood but at other postal facilities that receive mail from Brentwood. And I'm pretty sure I heard Ari Fleischer say just now, antibiotics -- they are going to go ahead and provide antibiotics to all of the mail handlers in this instance.

COHEN: Exactly. And the reason why they do that, as I explained, the tests don't necessarily mean you are infected or not infected. It is a two-pronged approach. You see where the spores went, then you give everyone who may even have possibly been exposed, antibiotics. Because there is no good test. You don't know who has been infected and who hasn't.

So you go in and give everyone X number of days, and that has varied from location to location for reasons I'm not clear on, you give everyone a supply of Cipro. You don't even wait until the tests come back because the tests in many ways are meaningless from an individual person's personal health point of view -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Elizabeth Cohen and John King, thanks to both of you. We may come back to you during the hour.

Just quickly to reiterate. White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer coming out a few moments ago to announce that test done at a remote mail handling site for mail that is coming into the White House and into the buildings that are part of the White House, the executive office building, they have shown positive.

One of the mail handling machines, known as a slitter, which is described as a machine that opens up the letters, was found to have traces of anthrax spores on it. Now, what we don't know, a lot we don't know, but one of the things we don't know is when that took place because Ari Fleischer was not able to say. He said he doesn't know when the last test on this machinery had been done that came up negative.

He said there had been previous tests that were negative. He didn't know when they had been done. So the question, I think, in the minds of many, is was this within the last day or two, within the last week or what?

So a fairly explosive piece of information coming out of the White House that now anthrax apparently on a piece of mail, a package, or some other item that was destined for the White House or the offices in the White House complex.

Our coverage will continue right after this.

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