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
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also involved
in this investigation and has further information on ricin available