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  White House Mail Machine Has Anthrax

By Sandra Sobieraj
Associated Press Writer
Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2001; 8:11 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON –– President Bush said confidently Tuesday that "I don't have anthrax" after biohazard testing at the White House and the discovery of anthrax on a mail-opening machine at a screening facility six miles away.

All White House mail – more than 40,000 letters a week – is examined at military facilities across the Potomac River.

"Let me put it this way," Bush said. "I'm confident that when I come to work tomorrow, I'll be safe."

Asked if he was tested for the germ that has killed three people already this month, or if he was taking precautionary antibiotics, Bush replied simply: "I don't have anthrax."

At least some White House personnel were given Cipro six weeks ago. White House officials won't discuss who might be receiving the anthrax-treating antibiotic now.

On the night of the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House Medical Office dispensed Cipro to staff accompanying Vice President Dick Cheney as he was secreted off to the safety of Camp David, and told them it was "a precaution," according to one person directly involved.

At that time, nobody could guess the dimensions of the terrorists' plot.

Now, Bush said on Tuesday, "There's no question that the evil-doers are continuing to try to harm America and Americans."

The president spoke in an afternoon Cabinet Room meeting with members of Congress, minutes after his press secretary announced that a "small concentration" of anthrax spores were found on the slitter machine that opens White House mail at a Secret Service-controlled facility on property shared by the Anacostia Naval Station and Bolling Air Force Base.

Between three and eight workers on loan from the U.S. Postal Service had access to that contaminated machine where a trace amount – anywhere from 20 to 500 spores – of anthrax was found, a senior law enforcement official said.

At least 8,000 spores must be inhaled into the lungs to get the most deadly form of anthrax. Substantially fewer spores can cause the highly treatable cutaneous form of anthrax if they enter a cut in the skin.

Inside the iron gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. regular biohazard testing has been stepped up in the past month and no traces of anthrax have been found, said presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Security officials were apparently spooked even before Tuesday's discovery at Bolling, which handles mail processed through the Brentwood postal facility, and halted mail delivery to the White House complex several days earlier.

"We have not seen mail in a while," said a West Wing aide. A staffer on campus at Bolling, in southeast Washington, said the same was true there.

Two postal workers at Brentwood died of pulmonary anthrax – one on Sunday, the other on Monday.

Brentwood is where the anthrax-laced letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was first handled.

The Bolling facility, which also handles mail to the Secret Service, "has been closed for further testing and decontamination," Fleischer said. All employees there and in mailrooms within the White House complex – which includes the mansion, its East and West Wings, and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building – were being tested for exposure to anthrax.

In a statement, the Secret Service said no one connected with the mail facility at Bolling has reported anthrax-like symptoms.

Postal and health officials have said it's possible for one anthrax-tainted letter to contaminate another, meaning the anthrax found on the Bolling machinery could have come from a letter that mixed with other mail at Brentwood.

Experts believe it unlikely that a cross-contaminated letter would have contained enough anthrax to make someone sick.

Fleischer said a sweep of the Bolling facility turned up a "positive culture" around 12:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Given that the U.S. Capitol, network TV news anchors and media companies had already been targeted by anthrax-tainted letters, an attempted attack on the White House was almost to be expected, Fleischer said.

"There is no other target, unfortunately, like the president. ... The White House has always, unfortunately, been a target – a target for terrorists, a target for people who have shot at the building," he added.

At the Treasury Department next door, recent anthrax scares prompted officials to shut down a first-floor mail room and move all mail reception and screening to an annex across the street.

Mail sent to the Supreme Court is also intercepted off-site, where inspectors open and examine everything. Their black "NBC" stamp means the mail is free of nuclear, biological and chemical contamination.

No contamination had been found there as of Tuesday afternoon, court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said.

© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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