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Text: Fleischer on Anthrax Found at White House Mail Site

Tuesday Oct. 23, 2001

Following is the text of comments by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer on the discovery of anthrax at a remote mail site where White House is sent.

FLEISCHER: 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 the site are being swabbed and tested. Mail room employees at the White House will also be swabbed and tested. An environmental sampling throughout the White House has all shown negative.

I'd be happy to answer any questions.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) specific letter or package that has tested?

FLEISCHER: It's too soon to say. They are going to be going through that mail to determine what the source may be.


FLEISCHER: It was found on what's called a slitter, which is a mechanical device that opens the mail. It was not found on any mail itself. An investigation will now begin 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: Are you saying that environmental testing has been done within the White House?

FLEISCHER: Suffice it to say that, prior to September 11, and then as well as after September 11, the White House has always had extraordinary precautions in place. They've 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. And all the environmental sampling to date has shown negative.


FLEISCHER: 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: (OFF-MIKE) any precautionary step at the White House in any part of the complex? Are they taking antibiotics? Is anybody taking any precautionary step at all?

FLEISCHER: The answer to that remains the same as what I indicated earlier; that 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.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) antibiotics to the remote site?

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

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

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: Are they being swabbed and given any...

FLEISCHER: They'll be swabbed and tested. And on the antibiotics, that'll be a determination that's made based on what the results are.

I'll have to check with the medical staff to see if antibiotics will be provided earlier than that.

QUESTION: The mail room in the West Wing or in the building across the street?

FLEISCHER: It's the mail room handlers, mail room employees. And they are located--I do not believe they are in the West Wing itself.

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

FLEISCHER: The off-site facility is at a 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 has been exposed to anthrax, besides the mail room employees?

FLEISCHER: Suffice it to say, 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 test will done on the basis of where the doctors and the security personnel determine the most logical places to test. And that's 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.

QUESTION: Have you tested in the West Wing?

FLEISCHER: There are a variety of security procedures that were already in place. And I'm not going to go beyond that and discuss them.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) facility 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 11.

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

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

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 that information. I was in the middle of this briefing at that time. I was provided that information, approximately 2 o'clock.

QUESTION: And the test was done today, or yesterday? Was it a routine test?

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

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) tests, or 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 the 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.

QUESTION: The sample was found on a slitter, meaning, one assumes, that 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...

FLEISCHER: No. As I indicated, the investigation is beginning and they want 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 it may still be at the facility. As I 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 employees receive 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 gives 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 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, in effect, that the reason you know that no one else needs to be swabbed is the mail hasn't gotten beyond the mail room since September 11--that it's not getting to senior employees?

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

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) have you been getting unsealed mails since...

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

QUESTION: What other facilities, though, does this mail go besides the White House?

QUESTION: 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've been notified about it, and they will also receive the same type of treatment.

QUESTION: What agency is that?

FLEISCHER: The Secret Service.

QUESTION: What is the exact operation in the White House on a day to day? Are there any shut-downs, any 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 results of the environmental sampling, which is, if you think about it, that's one of the best precautions you can take is to go in and take a 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: Would you say that there's 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's been passed on to me, and faithfully report it to you on the basis of what the security people have told me. That's their analysis.

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

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

QUESTION: But do you know what piece of equipment showed it's last negative test? I mean, is it 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: You don't know when that piece of equipment was last tested...

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: ... prior to this morning?

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

QUESTION: 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, probably 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 would 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, to Majority Leader Daschle, perhaps, in this case, to the White House. And the president understands that these are enemies that we face, who are seeking to create the most disruption in our society. And he is determined not to let them succeed.

We'll take three more.

QUESTION: 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...

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

QUESTION: This is a huge campus with a lot of people. It's already been said--you said that the slitter has detected something 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? And have you been swabbed and has anybody over here been swabbed?

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

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

FLEISCHER: Again, the White House has high confidence as a result of the security precautions that are in place.

QUESTION: 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's correct.

QUESTION: And so you've been doing that absent any evidence to suggest that there may be anthrax present.

FLEISCHER: As you can 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 terrorists, 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 place for the White House as a result of its unique nature. Those tests were enhanced after September 11.

QUESTION: And therefore, the protocols that you discussed earlier today that would apply to federal facilities, like post offices around the country, that were being followed that indicated there is 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: Well, actually on that point, if you look at the remote delivery site in the same way you do as the substations of D.C.; the substations are being checked also on their equipment. So that's similar.

But as I mentioned, there is no other institution like the White House. There is no other target, unfortunately, like the president. And therefore, the White House has also had a unique and different set of security precautions and continues to have them.

QUESTION: Can I just ask you, 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.

QUESTION: And did the pre-September 11 test that you talk about being in place for a long time, because this place is a target, do they include tests for anthrax?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to get into all the degrees of the testing that have been done. Again, that's part of the security regimen at the White House and we do not indicate with that level of specificity about what has been tested, what has not been tested.

Thank you everybody.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company