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Postal officials grilled on handling of mail during anthrax attacks

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Top Postal Service officials faced sharp questioning Tuesday as Congress turned its attention to the handling of the anthrax crisis.

Rep Henry Waxman, D-Calif., complained that the post office had planned for an attack on the airlines but not for a direct attack on the post office itself.

Now, he said, they ``are trying to do emergency planning at the worst possible time, in the midst of a crisis.''

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., House Government Reform Committee chairman, agreed that ``this situation hasn't been handled perfectly.''

At an earlier hearing, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said: ``I think we ought to admit we weren't prepared for bioterrorism.''

Chief Postal Inspector Kenneth Weaver said: ``We are in the midst of an unprecedented attack on our nation's mail system.'' Never before, he said, has there been a biological attack through the mail.

Cases of anthrax have occurred in Florida, New York, New Jersey and Washington, all thought to be connected to contaminated letters.

The first case of anthrax was found at a tabloid publishing company in Florida. Postmaster General John E. Potter, at a hearing of the Senate Government Affairs Committee, was asked why the agency didn't immediately react after that incident was reported.

Potter said anthrax exists naturally in some parts of the country and there was no definitive way of determining where the anthrax in the Florida case came from.

Contamination has since been located in that company's mail room but no tainted letter has been found in Florida. Authorities think one was probably disposed of in the trash before the disease appeared.

The post office has made gloves and masks available to its workers and Potter said the agency has been aggressive in seeking out contamination and getting it cleaned up.

Potter said the costs to the agency will amount to billions of dollars. Both Burton and Waxman said Congress would work with the agency to help cover the costs.

``As a nation we'll never be the same. The sense of security that we once felt has vanished,'' Burton said.

Dr. Mitchell Cohen of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the House committee that as of Tuesday morning, his agency had identified 20 cases of confirmed or suspected anthrax, half inhaled and half the skin version. The cases are in Florida, New York City, Washington and New Jersey.
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