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Challenge for Ridge: Coordinate Federal Agencies for Homeland Defense

Aired October 18, 2001 - 11:12   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: It was quite interesting to hear Tom Ridge introduce attorney general, the head of the FBI, the postmaster general, the surgeon general, all these people who have been called in together to work collectively to help fortify this so called homeland defense.

It has been suggested by many people that the biggest challenge for Tom Ridge is how to coordinate all these offices and agencies in Washington with all the different agencies across the country in getting them to work in a unified fashion.

To Kelly Wallace at the White House and Kelly, clearly this was an effort, anyway, to put all these men at the podium to tell people that, hey, it's under control at this point. And we're trying to work toward a more unified approach. Your perception as well?

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. That's the same observation from this vantage point, Bill. Because as you know, the administration has been criticized somewhat by some. Some criticism that the administration not coming more quickly with information about these anthrax cases.

Number two, that some agencies are sort of giving different messages. You might get one message from the attorney general, a different message from the president's own spokesman. Here's an opportunity, as you noted, to bring all these different federal agencies together. The message clearly, from former Governor Ridge, this at his first news briefing with reporters since he took on the job about 10 days ago, is that all these agencies are coordinated, are working together.

Also, Bill, a message coming from the former governor as well, which is trying to calm a very anxious and nervous nation about all the cases of anthrax. You heard Governor Ridge during his opening remarks trying to put things in perspective for the American people, talking about trying to get people to focus on the handful of cases only so far, of people who have tested positive for being infected with anthrax.


TOM RIDGE, HOMELAND SECURITY DIRECTOR: Thousands and thousands and thousands of people have been tested for anthrax exposure. And thousands of environmental samples have been taken as well. And only five people have tested positive at this time for anthrax. I would tell you we are in the process of confirming a sixth. We will get back to you with details on that later. Today, as of now, we have only five out of the thousands that have been tested.


WALLACE: And we never quite got an answer as to the sixth case. They are still investigating, Bill, obviously we are working on that. We will get back to you on that information as we get it.

Finally, Bill, you know, one of the biggest challenges, really, as you talked about at the top, managing the 46 plus federal agencies, trying to coordinate them. You heard one of the reporters asking Governor Ridge if he would have the authority. Would people in these agencies actually listen to him, or is he basically just a coordinator?

The governor answering that question that his job is to coordinate, also to look where the gaps are and, again, to talk to the president on what is strong and what is working, but also what could be working better.

Some people thinking, Bill, that Governor Ridge should have more of a federal legislation, really, for his post so that he'll have more budget authority over these different agencies. But you heard Governor Ridge say that he has all the authority he needs, that he can see the president anytime he wants, and that clearly says a lot. Bill, back to you.

HEMMER: Kelly, by our count, and I don't think I am being inaccurate here, we believe that sixth case as we counted along, could have been this case in New York. A woman working in the office of Dan Rather at CBS News, which what we believe anyway, according to our count is what he was referring to.

The other bit of news out of there, this reward going out, a million dollars for anyone who can lead to the arrest and conviction of anyone sending anthrax through the mail, and the other point to be made, Kelly, I'm sure you heard it, postcards will be mailed to every American sometime over the next week to notify and inform them of how they can be more aware of going through their own mail as they receive it. Is that the message to inform at this time as well?

WALLACE: Absolutely, Bill. You heard even Governor Ridge say there's just a lot of speculation out there. The administration trying to focus on the facts, also trying to deal with the anxiety around the country. People concerned about whether the mail is safe, whether they should open any mail.

The FBI director, Robert Mueller, saying part of reason they released the envelopes, the envelopes, one that want to anchor Tom Brokaw and the other to Senator Daschle, want to get some leads, but also to let people know here's what these two look like. If you get something in the mail like this don't open it. Contact your local authorities. So clearly trying to get information out. Trying to educate and inform and again, trying to get people to calm down a little bit. Very anxious country.

HEMMER: And based on what they said, Kelly, 280 million Americans can look forward to postcards sometime very soon. Kelly, thanks. Kelly Wallace at the White House. Now Daryn for more.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: As we mentioned it was kind of an all- star cast behind Tom Ridge there including the Attorney general, the head of the FBI, the head of the postal service.

Let's bring in Susan Candiotti to look at the efforts of the investigation and some of the challenges that these men and women are facing as they try to go about that. Susan, hello.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. No shortage of challenges to be sure. As we go over the numbers of the cases, however, I know it tends to be very confusing. But this is what we appear to have at this time: Five positive cases, as was mentioned in the news conference. And they seem to line up this way.

You have the two cases in Florida of inhalation anthrax. And then you have three cases of cutaneous, that is the skin form, of anthrax in New York. That would be the one case of the NBC employee. You have the one case involving the 7-month-old baby who visited -- was visiting ABC. And you have the case at CBS. Now we do not know what the sixth case will be. We are still awaiting the information on that.

One thing that FBI director Robert Mueller talked about among many, many things is how busy that agency has been in the last 18 days alone. He calculated more than 3,300 incidents checking out suspicions of a biological weapon of some kind. Of those 3,300 he said, at least 2,500 have dealt with incidents of anthrax that most, of course, we know, turned out to be false alarms or hoaxes. And he said compare that to an average year, they only looked into about 250 incidents of those kind.

Now, Mr. Mueller also talked about promising to get to the bottom of these cases. And in that regard, he announced a special incentive.


ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: We in the FBI are pleased this morning to join with postmaster general Jack Potter to announce a reward of up to one million dollars for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for terrorist acts of mailing anthrax.


CANDIOTTI: U.S. Attorney general John Ashcroft, again, said that he has two priorities in this investigation: To investigate what he calls acts of terrorism, number one, that he wants to prevent further harm. And number two: To try to find out who is responsible for all of these acts of terrorism as he called them. He indicated that at least four people, he announced have been arrested so far as we know. And he said he will not put up with any more hoaxes. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: False terrorist threats tax the resources of an already over-burdened enforcement system, and they also tax the public health system. They create illegitimate alarm in a time of legitimate concern. Terrorism hoaxes are not victimless crimes, but are the destructive acts of cowards.


CANDIOTTI: Now let's recap where we stand at this point in the investigation as well. Preliminary tests from the government tell us that there appears to be a match between the anthrax strains found in Florida, and in New York involving that letter to NBC News.

However, it is too early to say whether there's a match to the strain of anthrax found in the letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. What's interesting about that one is the form of anthrax. By the way, that anthrax sample is being sent from military lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland to the CDC in Atlanta this day.

It is being described as a natural strain that does not appear to be biologically engineered, which means that it is responsive to antibiotics, meaning it can be treated. However, we have heard a lot of talk in the last day or two about this particular form of anthrax found in the Daschle letter, that the particles are said to be very small, measuring only 1 to 2 microns, which would mean that it would make it easier to inhale and be lodged into the lungs.

Now this day at the news conference we're hearing that all of that information that has been passed on to us is still very preliminary in nature. The testing is not complete and they didn't want to go further with discussing that.

Finally, we want to wrap up to you a situation in Kenya. Now this would be the first possible case -- we want to stress possible case -- of anthrax being found overseas since all of these incidents began. What we have is confirmation from Kenya's health minister that a letter that was mailed in Atlanta postmarked September 8 that went through Miami, was received in Nairobi on October 9 and was received by an unidentified private citizen and opened on October 11. They are saying that it is testing positive for the presence of anthrax. But, again, all that is preliminary information at this time. Back to you, Bill.

KAGAN: Actually it is Daryn, but that's OK. A case that brings up a lot more questions and we'll follow up with that a little bit later. Susan Candiotti in D.C. -- Bill.

HEMMER: We were just talking, it is difficult enough for us to keep track of the cases, whether it is five or six. And certainly I would imagine a number of viewers are quite confused as we go through this as well. Suffice to say what Tom Ridge said at the outset, letting the facts stand on their own, as he said. Thousands have been tested, only about a half dozen have proved positive for infection -- which is contrary to exposure -- infection at this point, and also one fatality as a result of what we're tracking now regarding anthrax across the country.

On Capitol Hill though, another scare yesterday. Jonathan Karl watching that. The House left yesterday. The Senate still conducting business today. Jonathan, good morning.

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Bill, I want to get right to something that was very interesting today. Every day the Senate starts with an invocation, with an opening prayer by the Senate chaplain, Lloyd Ogilvie. Let's listen how he opened the prayer he used to open the Senate this morning.


LLOYD OGILVIE, SENATE CHAPLAIN: Lord, those who have tried to create panic with anthrax letters and threatening phone calls have failed. We are stronger than ever and more determined to press on in the battle against terrorism here and throughout the world.


KARL: So rather routine in that you have the Senate opening with a prayer, but obviously a prayer like none they've ever heard before. And that is the real sense of determination you are hearing among the senators as they come here for this incredibly unusual day.

The House decided as a safety precaution to completely shutdown, allow the environmental screening to take place, in all of the office buildings and in the House side of the Capitol. But the Senate was determined, the rank and file members of the Senate were determined to send a symbol that they are still operating regardless of the threat.

I interviewed, this morning, Senator Joe Lieberman, who acknowledged that although they are symbolically going forward this is a highly unusual day.


SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: It's going to be an unusual day but these are unusual times. I have a Capitol Hill office. Four or five of my top staff will be in working around me. I think there will be a lot of milling around the cloak rooms for members of the Senate. But we will do our job. And I think there's a real feeling of pride and purpose.


KARL: As a matter of fact if you look, we have some view of Senator Dianne Feinstein's little hideaway, they call it. Each senator, not all of the senators, but many of the senators have tiny offices in the Capitol that are called hideaways. They have now moved in all their staff, or as much as that can, to fit in there. Many senators don't even have one of those small offices.

So it is a very unusual day over there. I have been seeing senators milling just as Senator Lieberman described, trying to get something done. And there is something going on here. They are right now having a vote on the floor of the Senate on a routine spending bill for military construction, one of those annual spending bills, and also some significant developments elsewhere.

Most significant is that last night, late yesterday, the two sides of the House and the Senate agreed -- struck a final deal -- on that anti-terrorism bill that we have been following for weeks. That's the bill that will give Attorney General John Ashcroft vast new powers to track down terrorists, including expanded powers to wiretap and eavesdrop on various electronic communications. They finally struck a deal on that. That happened very quickly yesterday even as the House was announcing its shutdown and the Senate was taking its extraordinary measures in terms of shutting down all of its office buildings. So Bill, some work still going on here -- Bill.

HEMMER: OK, Jonathan, thanks. We will be back in touch a little bit later this morning. A lot to track here in Washington.




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