WASHINGTON—The House of Representatives shut down Wednesday, and Congress closed six buildings where members have offices after more than 30 congressional workers tested positive for exposure to the deadly anthrax bacteria.
Anthrax spores also were found in New York Gov. George Pataki's Manhattan office, while FBI and suburban Chicago police and fire officials visited the Yorkville, Ill., home of House Speaker Dennis Hastert to investigate a suspicious letter. Officials said there was no evidence the letter contained anything harmful.
Underscoring the Bush administration's increasing concern about possible bioterrorism, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson asked Congress for money to stockpile medicine, including 300 million doses of smallpox vaccine, enough to inoculate everyone in the U.S. if necessary, while the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of two alternate antibiotics, besides the patented Cipro, to treat anthrax.
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said the anthrax attacks could be the work of a group and individuals working independently.
"It may be that there is some of both here," Ashcroft said on PBS' "The NewsHour." He also said those responsible for mailing anthrax may be attempting to divert the attention of investigators by perpetrating hoaxes.
The congressional staffers exposed to anthrax included at least 23 employees of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who received a letter Friday containing anthrax, and three staffers of Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), whose office is next to Daschle's suite in the Hart Senate Office Building. Five Capitol Hill police officers also were exposed.
The congressional workers are taking antibiotics and are unlikely to contract the disease, officials said. The Senate remained open for business, but Hastert (R-Ill.) decided to close the House on Wednesday afternoon to allow its offices to be screened. The House will return Tuesday, Hastert said.
The extraordinary spectacle of a deadly microorganism making its way into the halls of Congress left lawmakers and their staff on edge and in a state of widespread confusion. Authorities sent mixed signals Wednesday about the threats' severity, the virulence of the anthrax samples and the likely sophistication of those behind the episodes, to the distress of some public health experts.
Hastert, for instance, said early in the day that anthrax had been found in the Hart building's ventilation system, a statement that other lawmakers and health officials spent much of the day debunking.
Likewise a ferocious debate broke out over whether the anthrax found in the Hart building was of "weapons grade," a distinction meant to get at the question on everyone's mind: whether a hostile country had helped terrorists produce and spread the bacteria.
Officials said the anthrax sample certainly was created by individuals with malevolent intent. "The material from Sen. Daschle's office was professionally done," said a senior federal law-enforcement bioterrorism expert. Specifically, the Daschle sample was finely milled, a process that keeps anthrax spores from adhering to one another and makes them easier for the body to inhale.
In the past week, anthrax has been found at the headquarters of a tabloid newspaper publisher in Florida, television networks in New York, on Capitol Hill and at Pataki's Manhattan office.
The discovery at Pataki's office was prompted by a suspicious letter, leading authorities to conduct tests, one of which showed a "probability" of anthrax in a little-trafficked area of the office.
While Pataki suggested that the spores might be linked to the letter, other officials speculated that they may have been inadvertently left by state police who accompanied Pataki to interviews at television networks where anthrax was present.
Pataki's office will be closed for the rest of the week, and the governor and his staff began taking Cipro as a precaution.
Letter arouses suspicion
Late Wednesday, the FBI and suburban fire and police were called to Hastert's Illinois home after Yorkville police were notified that a "suspicious letter" had arrived there.
The letter was postmarked Oct. 9 in Louisville and was addressed personally to Hastert in penciled handwriting, said FBI Agent Sonya Chavez. The letter carried a return address from Anchorage, Ky., she said.
Family members, not expecting a letter from that area, became concerned and called police, who notified the FBI, Chavez said.