11 September 2001>News Stories>After a Week of Reassurances, Ridge's Anthrax Message Is Grim

After a Week of Reassurances, Ridge's Anthrax Message Is Grim
Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Judith Miller . Washington Post . 25 October

After a week of sending calming messages about the threat posed by the anthrax in a letter that was opened on Capitol Hill, Tom Ridge, President Bush's director of homeland security, said publicly for the first time today what others have said in private: the germs were very pure, very concentrated and very deadly.

"It is clear that the terrorists responsible for these attacks intended to use this anthrax as a weapon," Mr. Ridge said. "Clearly, we are up against a shadow enemy, shadow soldiers, people who have no regard for human life. They are determined to murder innocent people."

Mr. Ridge's remarks on the anthrax-tainted letter sent to Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, followed a 2 1/2-hour meeting he held Wednesday night with law enforcement and public health officials, who have been at odds this week over whether proper sharing of information might have spared lives. Those questions came as at least two more cases of anthrax were found today.

At the closed-door session held in the Roosevelt Room of the White House and attended by, among others, Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, and Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation the Army scientists analyzing the Daschle letter detailed their latest findings. Mr. Ridge directed those in attendance to cooperate fully with one another, and, asserting his new authority as the president's point man on homeland defense, declared himself in charge of the government's response to bioterrorism.

"The point was, we are all going to get together on one message here," said one person who was not at the session, but was briefed about it. The F.B.I. was a particular target for criticism, another official said.

Mr. Thompson, the health secretary, said the officials discussed "ways that we can circulate information faster between the laboratories and the principals" in the investigation. While he said the agencies had been "cooperating very nicely," he also acknowledged that he "was always concerned" about laboratories at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "not being in the loop."

Mr. Ridge's remarks today represented a 180-degree turnabout from what the administration has said previously about the Daschle anthrax. In days after an aide to Mr. Daschle opened the letter on Oct. 15, with President Bush on an overseas trip in China and anxiety about anthrax mounting back at home, administration officials were exceedingly careful in their comments.

They called the anthrax, at various times, "common variety," "naturally occurring" and susceptible to antibiotics. All those statements were, in the narrow sense, true. But public health and law enforcement officials say they did not convey the full extent of what has been known, at least since last Friday, about the Daschle anthrax.

Now, with two postal workers in Washington dead and others falling sick, presumably from exposure to the Daschle letter and perhaps from others like it, it is no longer possible for the administration to speak in such reassuring tones. However, a senior administration official tonight said the White House has not been playing down the risk, but rather was waiting for conclusive scientific evidence the evidence shared at Wednesday night's session before releasing a detailed description of the anthrax to the public.

"It is easier to speak quickly from guesswork than it is to wait and speak definitively on the record, based on scientific conclusions," this official said. "The worst thing that could happen as the nation goes through the anthrax scare is for the federal government to say things, on the record, that are later proved to be incorrect."

One person familiar with the investigation was critical of the government's slowness in providing a clear and accurate description of the Daschle anthrax and likened that explanation to saying that, "before you can call a zebra a zebra you have to analyze every hair on its back to make sure they are zebra hairs," and added, "Standing 10 yards away, I could tell it was a zebra."

At this morning's news conference with Mr. Ridge, Maj. Gen. John Parker, commander of the Army laboratory that is analyzing both the Daschle anthrax and a letter sent to The New York Post, said the Post anthrax was "clumpy and rugged." One of his scientists, he said, described it as "looking like Purina Dog Chow."

But the Daschle anthrax, General Parker said, was "fine and floaty."

It is that fine and floaty quality that makes the Daschle anthrax so dangerous. The germs can hang, invisibly, in the air and get absorbed in the lungs of those exposed to it, causing pulmonary anthrax, the most deadly form of the disease. This week, two postal workers have died of pulmonary anthrax, and others have been sickened with it; the authorities believe the Daschle letter, and perhaps others containing a similar substance, is responsible.

The letter to Mr. Daschle arrived in the Senate majority leader's office on Oct. 15 and was opened by one of his aides. The response was swift: the senator's office was quarantined, the Capitol's mail system was stopped, public tours were suspended and 50 people, most of them aides to Mr. Daschle, were placed on antibiotics while they were tested for anthrax exposure.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention knew that the letter passed through Washington's main postal sorting facility on Brentwood Road, the post office was not tested for the presence of anthrax, and workers were not tested for anthrax exposure.

C.D.C. officials have said they based that decision on information from their own investigations of anthrax attacks in New York and Florida where, they said, only trace amounts of anthrax spores had turned up in post offices.

The Florida and New York cases began with people getting sick a photo editor at a tabloid in Florida and an assistant to Tom Brokaw, the NBC News anchor, in New York. So the investigations there began with doctors and public health officials, who responded by calling in the C.D.C., the agency they rely on when faced with a problem that requires unusual laboratory expertise.

The Washington inquiry followed a different course. Here, the "first responders," as they are known in bioterrorist lingo, were not doctors and public health workers, but the Capitol police, who sent the Daschle letter not to the C.D.C. but to an Army laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md.

The Fort Detrick laboratory has long experience with bioterrorism. Before 1972, when the United States signed an international accord prohibiting possession of deadly biological weapons, the laboratory was involved in developing germ agents. Today, under the name U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or Usamriid, it conducts research to defend against bioterrorism.

There have long been tensions between Usamriid (pronounced you- SAM-rid) and the C.D.C. When the C.D.C. argued that its vials of the smallpox virus should be destroyed because the disease had been eradicated, the Fort Detrick laboratory fought to retain the smallpox stocks on the grounds that they were neeed for research on bioterrorism. When, in years past, C.D.C. dismissed the threat posed by bioterrism as minimal, Usamriid argued otherwise even as its budget was slashed.

Those tensions spilled out into the open this week, when officials at the C.D.C. complained that information obtained by the Army laboratory shared with the F.B.I., but that the F.B.I. did not, in turn, share it with the disease control centers. F.B.I. officials, for their part, said they shared everything they knew.

The issue came up at the Wednesday night session with Mr. Ridge, said one official familiar with what was said. "They've promised to be more forthcoming," the official said. "What will happen, we'll see."

Mr. Thompson described the meeting this way: "I think what Governor Ridge wanted to do last night was to even further coordinate the cooperation as well as discuss any problems, and also to look at the way that we can circulate information faster between the laboratories and the principals."