Threatening note, powder found in new letter in Daschle's office; not hazardous, officials say

Thursday, January 3rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP)_ A package containing a threatening note and a powdery substance surfaced in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's Capitol office on Thursday, but officials said initial tests were negative for hazardous material.

``The material is not hazardous right now,'' Lt. Dan Nichols of the Capitol police told reporters as officers moved swiftly to quarantine the area around Daschle's second floor suite just off the Senate floor.

Nichols added, though, that the initial tests did not yield information about whether the substance had once been hazardous _ whether, for example, it contained anthrax spores rendered harmless when the mail was irradiated.

Dangerous or not, the discovery was a reminder of the anthrax threat of last fall, in which 18 people became ill and five died in separate attacks in Florida, Washington and the New York-New Jersey area.

Daschle was the recipient of an anthrax-tainted letter in October that exposed more than two dozen people to spores and led to the closure of the Hart Senate Office Building across the street from the Capitol. The building remains closed as officials attempt to kill all lingering spores.

This time, the letter was opened in the Capitol itself, somewhere in Daschle's second-floor suite. Ranit Schmelzer, Daschle's spokeswoman, said the South Dakotan was not present.

Nichols said Daschle was ``well aware of the situation and he is safe.''

As a precaution, police cordoned off an area around Daschle's office, and briefly restricted movement in the area immediately above on the Capitol's third floor.

``While we do not know what the substance is, we do know that the substance is not hazardous,'' Nichols said at a news conference.

Officials said that mail addressed to Congress is bombarded with radiation before it is delivered to the Capitol complex, and a rounded cut is made at one corner of at least some envelopes as an additional precaution.

Nichols described the letter to Daschle as threatening in nature, but he refused to elaborate.

He also declined to provide any information about the postmark or other identifying information on the piece of mail, or to say who opened it.

He said the powdery material was being turned over to the FBI.

He also said police would notify the U.S. Postal Service, and said he expected officials there would check facilities where the letter traveled on its way to Daschle's office.

The development was a reminder of how little has been learned about the culprits behind the anthrax letters that shook the nation last fall after the Sept. 11 airliner-hijacking attacks. No arrests have been made in connection with any of the anthrax-tainted letters.

All told, officials have confirmed 18 cases of anthrax in Washington and elsewhere since October _ 11 inhalation and seven of the less-serious skin form. Five people have died.

Two anthrax-tainted letters had been discovered in the congressional mail system: the one opened in Daschle's office in October and a second one addressed to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The two contained anthrax and identical handwriting saying in part, ''09-11-01 You can not stop us. We have this anthrax.'' They concluded: ``Allah is great.''