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U.S. Senate in Business Despite Ricin Find

No injuries noted to date from February 2 discovery of poison

By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The U.S. Senate is open for business despite the discovery of the deadly toxin ricin in a Senate office building February 2. The incident has caused office evacuations, some disruption and a cancellation of the usual public tours, but Senate leaders vow that their business will go on.

"The work of government will continue," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle at a February 3 briefing. "Terrorist attacks, criminal acts of this kind, will not stop the work of the Senate or the Congress."

Not allowing the ricin incident to disrupt previously scheduled activities, lawmakers convened in the Capitol building February 4 for a speech by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, and the Senate continued debate on major legislation regarding the national highway system.

The extent to which Senate personnel were exposed to the toxin is under investigation, but so far no one has become ill, according to Senate leaders. The toxic effects of this poison, derived from the crushed beans of the castor plant, are known to present themselves within 48 to 72 hours. As each hour passes, medical officials involved in the case say it becomes more apparent that the perpetrator has failed to hurt anyone. That fact makes it no less a criminal, terrorist act, lawmakers said.

"Because of the nature of the agent, it clearly is intended to terrorize," said Senate Majority leader Bill Frist at the briefing. "In terms of implying whether or not there's linkage to terrorist activity or al Qaeda or what's happening elsewhere in the world, it's premature in that regard."

The domed Capitol building is at the center of Washington's congressional complex. Surrounding the capital is an array of buildings providing office space for individual lawmakers, their staffs, committees and hearing rooms. Those buildings on the Senate side, are closed to regular activity, as local law enforcement officers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Joint Terrorism Task Force search them to see if ricin is detected beyond the mailroom adjacent to Frist's office where the poison was first found. Business goes on in the Capitol building itself, and those office buildings occupied by members of the House of Representatives.

Washington City Police Chief Terry Gainer explained that authorities are pursuing this as a criminal investigation. "We will send hundreds of individuals into those buildings to reclaim any mail that hadn't been opened," he said, in order to subject it to testing for the toxin.

Though the ricin was found in an area devoted to receiving and sorting mail, authorities don't know for certain at this point whether the toxin came in through the mail system or was delivered by some other means.

This incident occurs a little more than two years after envelopes of anthrax were delivered through the mails to the Senate in Washington and several media organizations in New York and Florida. Five people died in that series of attacks, and no one has ever been charged with the crimes.

Frist said that experience taught officials a great deal about how to cope with a biological attack. "You have intelligence working with the Capitol physician's office, working with government employees and staff members and Homeland Security and the bioterrorist experts, together," he said. "Things are going very well -- not perfectly, but very, very well."

Daschle noted that the installation of air filtration systems and other improvements have created a higher level of protection from a would-be biologic attack. "What we have attempted to do over the last couple of years is to improve our defenses, to find ways with which to minimize the risk...(T)o a large extent, we've been able to do a lot of that," he said.

The latest information on the status of the Senate is available from http://frist.senate.gov

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also involved in this investigation and has further information on ricin available at http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/ricin/index.asp