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Text: Homeland Security Briefing with Gov. Ridge

eMediaMillWorks
eMediaMillWorks
Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2001

Following is the text of remarks on homeland security and the investigation into recent anthrax cases by Gov. Tom Ridge, Director of the Office of Homeland Security; Dr. Pat Meehan, Centers for Disease Control; John Nolan, Deputy Postmaster General; Dr. Anthony Fauci, National Institutes of Health.

RIDGE: Good morning, again. Welcome to what I think is becoming a daily briefing of the Office of Homeland Security. It's good to be with you again this morning.

Obviously, there are a few items on the radar that we'll be discussing this morning. Some of them you're already aware of. Others, you may not be.

First of all, I'd like to talk a little bit about the alert the FBI announced last evening. We all are very much aware that on September 11, our war against terrorism began. And since September 11, there has been an extraordinary amount of coordination and collaboration among federal agencies in response to the horrific events of that day in addition to the anthrax challenge that this country has experience subsequent as well.

There's also been unprecedented collaboration and coordination among intelligence gathering agencies around the world, as the president has, working with Secretary of State Powell, forged an international coalition to help us combat terrorism worldwide.

As a result of this collaboration, we are receiving more intelligence than we received perhaps in the past. And from time to time, we have, in response to credible information received from a variety of sources, asked the attorney general to step forward and give a public alert. That's exactly what occasioned yesterday when Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Bob Mueller basically, and again for the second time, put America on alert that, on the basis of credible information we have received from multiple sources, we believe the United States could be targeted this week, this next week or so, with a terrorist attack or attacks.

One of the great challenges that you have in reporting and one of the great challenges I have as Director of Homeland Security is in giving you timely and accurate and complete information with regard to this threat assessment and the threat alert.

If we had specific information about the type of weapon or a specific location, this would have certainly been shared with the local or state officials.

Unfortunately, we view the information as credible but not specific. And the question has been raised, ``Well, then, you issued an alert a couple of weeks ago, why issue a second alert?'' And I will say to you that we think it is very important since September 11 for America to remain on the highest possible alert, when we get this kind of information, to put it in the public view so they understand that again we're getting some intelligence that suggests that we may again be the focus of an attack or attacks.

It's a difficult and fine line that we walk. But I think America understands and hopefully appreciates that when there's that kind of information available to us, we just share it with America, as incomplete as it might be.

And as a result of the alert yesterday, we have security guards at shopping malls paying more attention, personnel at airports paying more attention, the policemen on the street from the 11-7 beat or driving that patrol car around that neighborhood. If everybody has a heightened sense of alert, we send a signal not only to America, but those who would terrorize us, those who are trying to disrupt our way of life, that we are on guard as a country.

Now, one of the unfortunate consequences of this one-war, two-battlefield scenario is that whether you're in the Afghanistan or in the battlefield of the United States--like the president said, one-war, two-battlefields--you do get intelligence. Some of it turns out to be accurate.

Some people have questioned, ``Well, you put us on a general alert a couple of weeks ago and nothing happened.'' Well, we will never know if the country, going on alert, heightening security, thwarted or frustrated an attempt by somebody or some individuals within this country to bring harm or terror to a community or to a region.

Again, the environment has changed since September 11. This war on terrorism is going to continue for an indefinite period of time.

And until such time, who knows whether there will be that time in the foreseeable future that we can pull back from the kind of alerts that we send out. We want America to be on the highest alert. And from time to time, we may issue the same general alert again.

So I just think it's very important to try to put it in context to you. People have asked, what should we do? And I said, go to work, take your child to school. If you've got a softball game or a soccer game this afternoon, go to the game, the president's going to the baseball game tonight.

America has to continue to be America. What terrorists try to do is instill such uncertainty, such fears, such hesitation, that you don't do things that you normally do. And all we're saying with a general alert is, ``Continue to live your lives, continue to be America, but be aware, be alert, be on guard.''

As you know, the Homeland Security Council met yesterday. It was a very productive meeting. And I think it was pretty clear in the president's comments afterwards.

We are engaged in a two-front war against terrorism. Our new foreign terrorists tracking task force will help us in our efforts to protect American citizens from these shadow warriors, these shadow enemies we're up against, people who use America's welcoming tradition of hospitality and generosity to hide their real motives, to hide their real intent, committing atrocities against innocent people.

The Homeland Security Council in the meeting focused on this terrorist tracking task force. We talked a little bit about the effort that's going to be undertaken with the task force, with the attorney general, with the secretary of state and the other relevant Cabinet agencies to tighten up, to take a constructive and perhaps critical look at how we issue visas and our immigration policy across the country.

Not just student visas but just immigration generally, we want to coordinate with our friends to the north and the south visa and immigration policy as well. I met previously with my counterpart in Canada, John Manley.

I will be meeting in the near future with Mexican officials to talk about some kind of comparability, some commonality between the visa and immigration policies in this hemisphere. So I think it was a very productive meeting. Obviously, one other comment I might make is that one of the tasks assigned to the task force with respect to Cabinet agencies was to move quickly to upgrade the technology so that information can be shared within departments of government. So that is moving forward very aggressively at the direction of the president.

Let me now give you an update on the anthrax situation. To date, we have 14 confirmed cases of anthrax, five suspected cases, 18 cases that are under investigation and three cases that appear suspicious and are being looked at further.

As has been reported, teams of medical personnel have been working double shifts at D.C. General Hospital to provide counseling and antibiotic prophylaxis to postal workers and mail handlers. As of Sunday night, 10,916 postal workers had received counseling and preventive care.

I talked with New York Mayor Giuliani last night. He advised me about the first confirmed case of inhalation anthrax in New York. I think you are probably aware of that. The New York State Department of Public Health and the CDC are investigating to try and determine the possible course of this woman's exposure.

In New Jersey, a 51-year-old woman who works as an accountant in a company that receives mail from the Hamilton postal facility has a confirmed case of skin anthrax. On October 17, she noticed a blemish on her forehead. Went to her doctor, he put her on Cipro. The lesion was biopsied and those original tests came back negative. However, the lesions worsened. And she was admitted to the hospital and put on intravenous antibiotics. A subsequent test turned up positive for anthrax.

The woman's condition has improved with antibiotics. She has been released from the hospital and is recuperating at home.

The New Jersey State Health Department and the CDC are investigating, and included in their investigation are places that send or receive mail from the Hamilton facility.

As you well know, I think, trace amounts of anthrax have been found in the mail room of the USDA Economic Research Service at 1800 M Street. That, too, is under investigation. Each one of these incidents precipitates a very thorough investigation. So obviously, we've got several of these investigations going on simultaneously.

I know you may have some questions for me, and I certainly look forward to answering them.

I have Dr. Anthony Fauci with me from the National Institute of Health. He'll be available for questions. We have our Deputy Postmaster General John Nolan here available for questions, as well.

And I'm going to ask Dr. Pat Meehan, however, from the Centers for Disease Control to give us an update on the situation in D.C.

Dr. Meehan?

PAT MEEHAN, DIRECTOR OF EMERGENCY AND ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH SERVICES: Thank you, Governor.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

Although, there have unfortunately been new cases reported from the New York and New Jersey area, the good news is that, in the Washington, D.C. area, there are no new reported suspect or confirmed cases. And as the governor reported, we have put on antibiotic prophylaxis several thousand postal workers who worked in the Brentwood facility and post offices that received mail directly from Brentwood. And we are in the process of working with the Postal Service to complete our evaluation of those post offices in the D.C. area that receive mail directly from the Brentwood facility.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Can we quickly just ask a little bit more about this alert? And let me see if I can get you to slice out a fine little part of this without giving away sources and methods or whatever else. Can you tell us what kind of information is out there, sort of the sphere that it came from, and what's different than the daily noise that comes across your desk about this particular threat?

RIDGE: You correctly point out there is quite a bit of intelligence information that comes across the desk every morning.

Yesterday's announcement was occasioned by a--the decibel level was louder, and there were more sources. Again, it was just a convergence of credible sources that occasioned the alert, more than usual is all I can tell you.

QUESTION: Governor, could you sort of characterize the type of information? It's been characterized in some places as more violent language. Could you just give us some kind of idea of what you're working with here?

RIDGE: The intelligence analysts, both in this country and elsewhere, because there's so much collaboration alone, are in a much better position to tell you why they came to that conclusion. Suffice it for me to say that the experts viewed the--assessed the creditability of multiple sources as very high and that is what occasioned the general alert.

Again, the challenge has been and may continue to be, absent more specific information with regard to the weapon of terror or the particular location or locations, that's about all we can go on.

QUESTION: Governor, if I could follow on that part more specifically. Is what makes the information credible that it came from Osama bin Laden or his operatives? And secondly, before you answer that, with the alert, if, as everyone hopes, nothing happens, don't you then do something for a second time that alarms people unnecessarily and may, in effect, create an atmosphere where people think, ``God, they keep telling us to be ready and we're ready and nothing happens.'' You know, who knows what's real and what's not, and therefore, the level of preparedness is not as high as you'd like?

RIDGE: Well, certainly the story that a lot of people allude to is the one you tell your children from time to time is the little boy who cried wolf and it's one I've told my kids over the years, and I can appreciate the concern.

But I do think that right now, given the war that we're confronting against terrorism on two fronts, that when, on occasion when we have credible, multiple sources suggesting that America will be a target, it's still better to, perhaps, reiterate the previous alert. I'm not too sure too many groups or agencies or individuals were able to stand down in the intervening two weeks, but to reiterate it.

Look, you get that kind of convergence of information from credible sources, and you have two options. You have on option to remain silent, or you have an option to have General Ashcroft and Director Mueller put out the alert. And we chose, as little--we would like to have been able to divulge more information, but there really wasn't any more to divulge. We decided the second option, and that's just tell the American public.

And what I have to say is, this is a condition of alert, to your point, that we're going to have to maintain. We have to be on guard for the foreseeable future. But I don't think that we should be discouraged when the information suggests that it may occur at a particular--this was in a particular time frame, within the next week or so. That we just get everybody thinking about it again.

QUESTION: How about the first point, Governor. I'm sorry. Can I just follow on the first point, whether is what makes this credible that it's coming from Osama bin Laden or his operatives?

The president said yesterday in response to the question I asked him, that indeed he suggested that bin Laden is still active.

RIDGE: Well, I think, the analyst would conclude that the sources were credible because of their connections with the terrorists that we're trying to fight. Where they're located right now remains to be seen.

But again, you've got people gathering information from around the world from a variety of sources. And it's credibility we leave to the experts. But I think you can fairly assume that the experts view this tied in--this information somehow related to Al Qaeda or bin Laden, else we wouldn't have ramped it up.

QUESTION: Is there any new information this morning about other postal facilities in the D.C. area that is contaminated in any way, large or small, with anthrax? There are some trace reports that the Friendship Heights Station in Northwest Washington, D.C., having some level of exposure. Can you confirm that first off? And I have a broader question.

RIDGE: OK. Do you have any information on that? I know they're doing quite a bit of testing around, and I'll let Mr. Nolan respond.

NOLAN: Governor, that's right, we are continuing to do testing of a number of facilities throughout the D.C. area as well as other parts of the country.

Last night, we did receive information about our Friendship Station as well as the Dulles Station--Dulles facility--the retail facility, not the main Dulles Airport facility. And those were extremely localized. One sample came back positive in all the samples that were taken in each of those facilities. The cleanup began last night with the Corps of Engineers and is expected to be completed early today. Again, extremely localized.

QUESTION: But both facilities had extremely small localized amounts and are being decontaminated as we speak.

NOLAN: Yes.

QUESTION: Governor Ridge, a general question to you, sir. If you listen to talk radio, if you look at some of the editorial pages, there is a sense Americans feel that there is a disconnect in what you're telling them: Be on a high level of alert, but live your lives as normal. And when I talk to people they say, ``That's not possible, normal doesn't exist anymore if every day I wake up and I'm on a high level of alert and I'm looking for something that I don't even know to recognize.''

How can you address what many people tell me is a disconnect coming from their own government?

RIDGE: Well, first of all, I think that since September 11, the images of that day have affected how Americans view this war on terrorism in a very personal and emotional way. So I'm not sure that our national psychology ever gets back to a September 10th feeling of comfort and security because of what we saw. And so I don't think raising from time to time when we receive credible information or reminding people to stay at that particular level of alert is anything but productive.

We all--the fear of the unknown is the greatest challenge that we face as individuals, as parents, as employers, as employees, as Americans. And this is an unconventional war, because we're dealing with shadow enemies, shadow soldiers. They're unknown to us. They're not necessarily wearing uniforms in this country. It's unconventional in so many different ways, including the means with which they choose to terrorize and to undermine our way of life and to murder innocent victims.

So the sense is that we have to still keep, in spite of these reservations, in spite of our uncertainty, we have to continue to function as a country that values the qualities that make us unique and that make us vulnerable. We are open. We are trusting. We are a welcoming country. For that very reason, we are vulnerable.

And everyday, since September 11, the federal government and the people in the private sector have been working harder and harder to make sure that we improve our ability to prevent and detect terrorists and improve our capacity to respond to the attacks. And it's a goal--I mean, it's a challenge that the country had confronted before September 11, but they've ramped it up since September 11.

So I still think it's a productive announcement just to remind people.

QUESTION: Given these new anthrax cases in New Jersey and New York, are you revising at all the working theory you seem to have that it was cross-contamination from individual letters that had already been discovered that was causing the positive results environmentally in the new cases? Do you think that this is evidence that there is more anthrax in the mail?

RIDGE: Well, there are plenty of theories. We have not been operating on one theory. There is a very thorough investigation, very detailed, very intense investigation is going on to determine whether it's one letter that cross-contaminated or whether there was more than one letter.

As I think I mentioned to you yesterday, we've sequestered the mail that was backed up because of the discovery of the Daschle letter. That will be reviewed on a letter by letter basis. The post office is really intensely, very aggressively looking at all the details associated with how the facility was operated, who was exposed to what machine, how people in different parts of the post office net could have become infected one way or the other.

So this is a very ongoing, very intense investigation. Because we'd like to go from theory to fact.

QUESTION: Any idea of where the source of the anthrax came from that the woman was infected with in Manhattan? Because it appears she wasn't in contact with any mail.

RIDGE: You raise a very important question that has again resulted in immediate and intense efforts with the CDC, the local public health authorities, and law enforcement authorities to go back and basically retrace her steps. It doesn't appear, I mean, clearly, she was not a postal employee. How she became contaminated, how she became infected is something is something that we need to try to find out.

QUESTION: Have you seen any evidence of other infections amongst her coworkers or neighbors?

RIDGE: Not today, as we speak, not today.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Sir, yesterday we were told that the risk to the general public in their mail is very minimal. And then, we have these new cases in New Jersey and New York. Have we revised our thinking on that?

RIDGE: We have not. I've asked the assistant postmaster general to calculate letters that have been distributed through the United States Postal Service since our first case of anthrax. And we estimate somewhere around 25 billion letters have gone around this country through our Postal Service.

And we do have one case that appears--the woman has been affected by anthrax. Whether the source was a letter or not still is a theory that we have to be engaging in. To tell you that it is absolutely, positively for all times, for all purposes, forever risk free, I don't think anybody has ever said that.

But when you've got 25 plus billion pieces of mail out there and one possible contamination and you couple that along with some very common sense advice that the Postal Service has given, the media has given, people around the country have given to each other about being alert, being careful, put aside suspicious mail--if you have any questions, wash your hands--the symptoms that people now associate with anthrax, we still think it's--you ought to open your mail, and you ought to use the postal system.

QUESTION: What is the credibility or strength of this threat compared to the threat that led to the last warning?

RIDGE: I would say of comparable credibility.

I mean, what you--the capacity of this country to gather intelligence information and then to assess it is fairly substantial and it's been augmented since September 11 with friends--our coalition around the country. And this particular threat notice occurred primarily because there were multiple sources that the community concluded was very credible and it gave a time frame around which we thought a terrorist attack or attacks could occur and we ought to alert America to it, be on the look out.

Yes?

QUESTION: Did the law enforcement agencies, the 18,000 entities around the country, get any more information than what we have been told? And if so, can we have that if that was sent out in writing?

RIDGE: The law enforcement agencies received a general alert from the attorney general's office. There is an electronic system where they can convey immediately the alert to 18,000 law enforcement agencies. It didn't give them any specific information. It just said basically that because of information received from credible sources that they need to heighten security. That's basically it. Clearly, if it is community-specific, region-specific, weapon-specific, we would communicate that immediately as well.

Yes?

QUESTION: Why are we checking only federal mailrooms downstream of Brentwood and not private residences? Is that along the lines of saying, well, only federal--it seems sort of like what happened earlier in the week saying that the Senate people are more important than the postal workers. Why if you're finding contamination in federal mailrooms downstream, are you not even checking for contaminations in private homes that are downstream from Brentwood?

QUESTION: Is this is double standard? And are going to rethink the whole idea of testing private homes?

RIDGE: Well, I believe the decision to test locations where there has been the highest probability or possibility of contamination is based in consultation with the postal service and with the CDC.

The ultimate test is, there have been about 25 billion pieces of mail that have been delivered around the country, and there is one potential case of anthrax exposure. Until there is more credible evidence or suggestion that there needs to be testing elsewhere--look, we're trying with the resources that we have, and there are many, and they are investigating furiously every possible location and source of contamination.

And I'm going to let Mr. Nolan respond.

NOLAN: The only thing I would add is that, it's not just government mailrooms that are being checked. We're forming a baseline that consists of all of those mail rooms that come in--where employees come in contact with the postal service in Brentwood on a daily basis and where there's a large-scale movement.

We're also testing facilities downstream, and so we keep pulling the strings, so to speak, to see if there's any possible contamination. We also know what machines in our facilities process what kinds of mail.

The reason why there's such a tremendous emphasis on government mail is, because, in fact, that's where the greatest amount of incidence of the bacteria was found in our facilities. And we know, given the routing for our facilities, that's where the clearest possibilities existed.

STAFF: Last question.

QUESTION: Does this now mean that the Morgan facility in New York, a large facility in New York, is going to be closed? And are there any further details on the 61-year-old hospital worker who is hospitalized...

NOLAN: Well, regarding the hospital worker, again, we don't have any information whatsoever about what's involved there, whether it was mail-related, non-mail-related.

Morgan Station, the main processing center is 1.8 million square feet. I was postmaster of New York for four years in the mid-to late-80s. I spent last Monday night or Monday day, between midnight and 8 a.m., with the employees of that facility, talking to about 1,000 employees.

The reason why Morgan is handled differently than other facilities is, because we know specifically from the 170-some-odd tests that we took, the five locations that we found traces of anthrax are extremely localized in the sorting machines on one small portion of the third floor, about 12,500 square feet. We've cordoned off a lot more than we were told to, about half of that floor, about 150,000 square feet. The clean up is going on. The employees are receiving antibiotics.

And there is no evidence in any of the downstream facilities there, the stations that even handled the mail for the news or the Post that there was any incidence of that, and no postal employees in New York have turned up ill.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

NOLAN: We remain open.

QUESTION: One question for...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about the Cohen Building, which is one of the biggest buildings in Washington, many governmental offices there. The post office is in the basement. Are you going to test just the post office, are you going to test the whole building and employees there?

RIDGE: Your question is, are we testing the whole building?

QUESTION: Yes, sir. Or are you just concentrating on the post office?

RIDGE: I believe, I'm going to refer to our friends from CDC to give you the latest on that.

MEEHAN: We're currently working with the mail room supervisor and the folks who run that building to evaluate where those positive tests occurred and whether it suggests that any further testing is needed.

I can tell you that chances are pretty good that this represents a localized, low-level of contamination that would--at this point does not seem to appear to warrant further testing of the building. But again, that evaluation is ongoing.

RIDGE: Final question for Dr. Fauci?

QUESTION: Dr. Fauci, I just wonder, based on your expertise, whether you think the government, despite the number of cases outstanding, but bearing in mind the measures that have been taken so far, based on your expertise, do you think the government is getting close to containing what, in your estimation, would be an anthrax, quote-unquote, ``outbreak''?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, NIH: When you talk about an anthrax outbreak, you have to talk about what we know now has been the, as we say, index case or cases, things centering around the Daschle letter and is there cross-contamination from one facility to another.

The one thing that we don't know right now is that we don't know whether something else will come up, and then you'll all of a sudden confuse it with what's going on right now.

So there's no absolute answer to your question, ``Is one doing enough to contain it?'' The present situation that we have right now has been based on the reasonable scientific assumptions that if you do not have a case in a certain setting that the risk of that and the level of concern of that must await what actually happened.

And I think if you march through the chain of events that occurred, with the Daschle letter that people in the office; then the first Brentwood post office situation, that there is contamination there; and then the lack of knowledge that there could be cross-contamination and perhaps a secondary site; and what you have to do with regard to where you test and who you preemptively or not give antibiotics to has to be based on some semblance of the science.

Up to yesterday, there was no evidence at all that there could be or is an individual in which there might be the reasonable question, ``Did they get infected from a piece of mail that went to their home?'' That is being intensively investigated right now.

Prior to yesterday, when that was not known, the idea that people ask us all, ``Should we then just treat everybody who had any exposure at all to mail?'' that clearly is not something that should have been done, based on the information that we had. As the days go by and you get more information, you make your rational decision based on the information and balancing the risk to the benefit of what you might want to do, for example, from a treatment or not standpoint.

So you really have to take the solid information that you have and make a reasonable projection of what your response to it would be.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company