Nov. 6, 2001 -- The worldwide anthrax scare spread to Russia today as FBI officials conceded they still do not know the source of the deadly bacteria, and have not figured out even what labs in the United States would be able to produce it.
MORE ANTHRAX-RELATED NEWS:
• FBI at Loss for Clues • Post Offices, Federal Buildings Reopen
The latest anthrax scare was revealed today when a U.S. Consulate in Russia confirmed it had received mail from Washington containing traces of anthrax. Consular officials said the mailbag was received on Oct. 19 and tested on Oct. 25 after the State Department notified them that an employee in its mail-handling facility in Virginia had contracted anthrax.
"The State Center for Medical-Epidemiological Control in Yekaterinburg informed the consulate this morning that one of six unclassified diplomatic mailbags received from Washington, D.C., and opened on Oct. 25 had tested positive for anthrax spores," the consulate said in a statement. "The source of the anthrax is not established, although the center told us the spores were found inside the bag."
Consulate officials said no one has contracted anthrax and one employee is on the antibiotic Cipro as a precautionary measure.
"On Oct. 26, one consulate employee decided to take a course of antiobiotics as a precautionary measure, and he'll continue taking the medication for the next 50 days," said consulate press officer Robin Holzhauer. "He is not ill and shows no symptoms of any illness. Medical experts have told us that our remaining employees do not need to begin any antibiotic treatments, and no other employees have shown any symptoms of any disease."
The consulate said that since the spores had only shown up in a second test, the amount of anthrax in the bag was likely to be negligible. Traces of anthrax have been found in two State Department mailrooms and in mail sent to U.S. embassies in Peru and Lithuania.
Yekaterinburg, in west-central Russia, served as a center for Soviet germ warfare, including anthrax development. The accidental release of anthrax spores there killed at least 69 people in 1979. The discovery of anthrax at the consulate in Yekaterinburg was the first of its kind in Russia since the spate of U.S. anthrax attacks.
FBI at Loss for Clues
The discovery came as FBI officials told a Senate panel today they have had little progress in the investigation on the spread of anthrax.
In a hearing before a Senate subcommittee, FBI Deputy Assistant Director James Caruso admitted the FBI does not know how many people may have had access to anthrax and does not know which labs nationwide could produce anthrax of the quality sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office on Capitol Hill and used in other attacks.
"We do not believe they [anthrax samples] were stolen or misplaced from a registered laboratory," Caruso said. "It's a very big population and universe to look at."
James Reynolds, the Justice Department's chief of terrorism and violent crime, said FBI and Justice Department officials are overwhelmed with false anthrax reports and hoaxes. However, they feel compelled to investigate all potential cases and leads.
"They are presently out of control," Reynolds said. "We very much need a hoax statute to assist these cases. … There are cases that we simply cannot bring based on the lack of a hoax statute.
"This is a war that we are all fighting and like every war, there's a certain amount of fog," Reynolds added. "But we're learning, and we have learned from it and we have no choice."
The FBI says it is pursuing more than 1,000 leads, including at least 100 that have taken investigators overseas. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and Government Information is considering legislation by Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to tighten regulation of the use of dangerous germs, fungi and toxins that could be used as biological weapons. At today's hearing, Feinstein said the investigation into the anthrax scares have been handled with "intense sloppiness."
Investigators continue to question three Pakistani men who were taken into custody near the anthrax-contaminated postal facility in Hamilton Township, N.J.
One man, identified as Allah Rakah, was detained Friday. FBI agents wearing protective gear searched his apartment, a nearby mailbox and his car, which had Florida license plates.
The other two men were taken into custody earlier last week in an FBI raid at another nearby apartment building. Anthrax-laced letters mailed to Daschle's office, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw in New York and the New York Post were processed at the Hamilton Township facility near Trenton, N.J.
All three of the handwritten notes inside were dated "09-11-01," the date of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and contained the message: "DEATH TO AMERICA. DEATH TO ISRAEL. ALLAH IS GREAT."
See a timeline of the anthrax attacks and the investigation.
Congressional Offices Reopen
Some decontaminated post offices and government buildings reopened today as officials were confident that the facilities had been cleared of anthrax. On Capitol Hill, most of the congressional office buildings closed after an anthrax-laced letter was unsealed in Daschle's office nearly three weeks ago have reopened.
Most of the Longworth building on Capitol Hill reopened Monday. The entire Hart building, which houses Daschle's office, remains closed for decontamination, but all five of the other Senate and House office buildings have reopened.
Two New Jersey post office facilities — including one today — reopened after anthrax outbreaks in that state. However, Washington's Brentwood postal facility remains closed after anthrax was detected two weeks ago.
The Brentwood postal facility processed the letter sent to Daschle's office and mail sent to the post office inside Pentagon, which was decontaminated over the weekend after anthrax was discovered in two areas. Today officials said there is no sign that the spores detected in the Pentagon post office have spread to other parts of the building.
The mailroom of the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington also receives mail from the Brentwood facility and has tested positive for trace amounts of anthrax.
Cross-contaminated letters processed at the Brentwood facility are believed to be the source of contamination of some 20 government and Postal Service buildings where the bacterium has been detected.