Leahy's anthrax-tainted letter same as one sent to Daschle

Thursday, December 6, 2001

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- The anthrax-tainted letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy that investigators opened this week is identical to the letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, two government officials said Thursday.

Scientists at the Army's biodefense laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md., opened the Leahy letter Wednesday. The event had been delayed more than two weeks while technicians tried to determine the best way to protect the evidence retrieved from the letter.

The FBI hopes testing on the Leahy letter will help track down the killer who sent mail containing the deadly powder to politicians and the news media.

Technicians worried that an electrostatic charge could develop as the envelope was opened and send anthrax spores flying out of the envelope and losing them to investigators.

Because of an electrostatic charge, some of the anthrax from a letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle "literally jumped off the slide" as lab technicians tried to examine it under a microscope, said a government lawyer outside the FBI who is familiar with the problem.

Two government officials said Thursday that the wording of the Leahy letter is identical to that of the Daschle letter.

Examining contents of the Leahy envelope will be a lengthy process, said government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Testing will not be completed in the next few days," said an FBI official. "We expect it to be weeks before all the results of testing are in."

The suspected anthrax powder from the Leahy letter will be sent to various labs for analysis.

The letter itself must be decontaminated and irradiated before it can be tested for fingerprints, DNA and fibers.

The Daschle letter and another letter to NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw also were tested at Fort Detrick.

The Leahy envelope was found by government investigators Nov. 16 among mail quarantined after the Oct. 15 discovery of anthrax in the Daschle letter.

The Leahy envelope was taped around all the edges and was loaded with so much anthrax that "you could feel the powder inside," an FBI microbiologist said in a recent interview. He said there were billions of spores.

The Leahy letter was in one of 630 trash bags filled with congressional mail that was set aside after the Daschle letter was found. It took investigators a week to find a suitable warehouse to facilitate the search of potentially dangerous material in the unopened mail. It took two weeks to build a containment area inside the suburban Washington facility where investigators could test the mail.

And it took almost a full week of testing on the various trash bags to come up with the Leahy letter, the only piece of mail that was loaded inside with suspected anthrax.

Five people have died of anthrax exposure.

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