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FBI says ricin also mailed to White House in Nov.
( 2004-02-04 09:59) (Washingtonpost.com)

The FBI said on Tuesday that a letter containing a vial of the poison ricin was mailed in November to the White House. That disclosure followed an announcement by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) that authorities have confirmed the white powder found in a Senate office building was ricin.

The White House incident had been kept secret until now. The letter, officials said, never reached the White House because it was intercepted at an offsite mail facility.

The letter was nearly identical to one discovered at a Greenville, S.C., mail facility last October that has been widely publicized and is the subject of a $100,000 reward. A worker processing mail there discovered a small metal vial of ricin in an envelope, which warned, "caution RICIN POISON Enclosed in sealed container Do not open without proper protection," according to an FBI news release on the case.

The FBI said in October that the envelope found in Greenville also contained a threatening typewritten letter -- signed "Fallen Angel" -- from a person claiming to be fleet owner of a tanker truck company who expressed concerns about new regulations that would affect the hours a truck driver can work. Those regulations went into effect Jan. 4.

The FBI has not disclosed to whom the Greenville letter was addressed.

On Capitol Hill today, Frist said that a number of tests are still being done on the sample of the powder found yesterday but a sophisticated analysis called a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, "identified [the powder] to be ricin. So it's a definitive test."

Frist said no other powder has been found elsewhere in the Senate complex. "All air sampling and all environmental studies today are negative, with the exception of what was found in that single office at that site," he said on the Senate floor this morning.

At his afternoon news conference, Frist and other Senate officials said that no one has reported any symptoms or injuries from the ricin, a colorless, odorless poison that can be readily distilled in small quantities from castor beans and which has no known antidote. The toxin usually affects people within four to eight hours, he said. Dr. John Eisold, the Capitol physician, said officials would continue to monitor for problems for another 48 to 72 hours.

"Somebody in all likelihood manufactured this with intent to harm," Frist said. "This is a criminal investigation."

U.S. Capitol Police chief Terrance W. Gainer said his department is working with the FBI on the investigation.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said he believed it was "an act of terrorism."

The three Senate office buildings were closed to workers and visitors this morning as authorities continued investigating the powder found about 3 p.m. Monday. Frist said the buildings were closed so that all mail could be adequately screened. Frist said those offices should be open within days.

Authorities are investigating how the powder got into the building. Dan Mihalko, a spokesman for the postal inspection service, said the source of the powder, whether it was a letter or a package or neither, has not been firmly established. All mail addressed to the Senate offices was nonetheless being quarantined.

Mihalko said that an intern in Frist's office was using a mail opening machine that slices letters open. He left the mail opening area for about three hours yesterday to attend a class, Mihalko said, and when he returned discovered a powdery substance in the area near the machine.

U.S. Postal Service officials have closed the V Street postal facility, Mihalko said, since all Senate mail travels through the facility twice -- once before being sent to New Jersey for irradiation, and again before being forwarded to an off-site Senate mailroom for further screening.

The irradiation process, which was instituted after the anthrax incidents of 2001, does not affect ricin.

"Irradiation is meant to kill live spores," said Mihalko. "Ricin isn't alive. It's a chemical, so it isn't neutralized."

He added that "it's more likely to affect just one person as opposed to a lot of people like anthrax."

One reason for that is because ricin, unlike anthrax, doesn't "aerosolize" easily to contaminate large areas through the air.

Frist said much still needs to be learned about the sample, but the early results showed that it was active. "How active? We don't know at this juncture," he said. "In terms of the size, shape, aerosolization, how sticky it is, additives, all that will come back over weeks."

A sample was sent this morning to Fort Detrick, Md., where the army has an advanced laboratory for testing.

"We haven't finished any testing," said Fort Detrick spokesman Chuck Dasey. Dasey said the lab will release the test results to the Department of Homeland Security probably no earlier than the end of the day.

Senate and House leaders took pains today to keep the appearance of normalcy and continued to conduct business on their respective floors, even while shutting down most of their personal offices. Frist said that he expected the offices would be open in a matter of days.

Leaders huddled with scientists, law enforcement and environmental experts to set a protocol for mail collection. While the Senate closed its three buildings, it allowed senators to enter offices at their own discretion. The House kept its buildings open but allowed members to decide whether their staffs should report to work, and distributed fliers to all personnel warning them not to handle mail and to report suspicious items to police.

The lack of immediate symptoms among any of the Senate staff reassures health officials, who note that enough people were around the ricin-containing powder that if anyone were going to be ill, symptoms should have begun by now.

"We are getting past the point where we would expect to see [people with symptoms], so as each minute ticks by, we are less and less concerned about immediate health effects, Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a morning news conference. "But we want to stay vigilant and do everything we can to make sure people who are potentially exposed get the appropriate medical attention.

In another development, Mihalko, of the postal service, also said that inspectors were investigating reports of an unidentified white powder at a postal distribution center in Wallingford, Conn. An employee found the powder in an envelope Tuesday morning, police and environmental officials told the Associated Press.

"That's enough to trigger our precautionary protocol," Wallingford Lt. Glen King said. "The worker found it and deemed the letter to be suspicious. Obviously the letter was isolated." Nobody was taken to the hospital and the facility remained open this morning, police said.

The Wallingford facility is the same postal center at which investigators found anthrax spores in 2001. The substance found today has been taken to the state forensics laboratory for testing, officials said.

Public warnings about ricin attacks have increased since January 2003, when British anti-terrorism police discovered traces of the toxin in a north London home, leading to a series of arrests and raids across the country in the following weeks. Two months later, French authorities found traces of ricin in two flasks discovered in a luggage checkroom at a Paris railway station.

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