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U.S. Capitol Police Spokesman Holds News Conference About Suspicious Letter Opened on Capitol Hill

Aired January 3, 2002 - 01:02   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Now we're going to go to the Capitol, where U.S. Capitol Police spokesman Dan Nichols is talking to reporters.

DAN NICHOLS, D.C. CAPITOL POLICE SPOKESMAN: ... inside the suite, in the Capitol Building, Room S220.

U.S. Capitol Police officers responded to the scene. We secured the area and didn't allow anybody in, didn't allow anybody out, while our hazardous devices unit responded.

They suited up and went in, and when they conducted an analysis of the substance, they found a letter that had a threatening note inside and a powdery substance inside of the letter.

They conducted an analysis of the substance with biotickets (ph); both of those tickets (ph) came back negative. So while we don't know exactly what the substance is, what we do know is that the substance is not hazardous.

According to our protocols, we've notified the FBI. The FBI is on the scene now. This is now going to be a matter of a criminal investigation conducted by the FBI in conjunction with the United States Capitol Police.

The building was closed for a short time while we conducted this analysis. We should have the building open again shortly. We didn't evacuate the building, we just merely would not allow anybody else into the building while this investigation was being conducted.

The building should be reopened here very soon. We've been conferring closely with Senator Daschle. Senator Daschle is well aware of the situation. He is safe. He's been apprised of the situation, as has his staff.

His first concern, of course, was for his staff. We have briefed them on the situation. The attending physician's office was on-scene also. Everyone is very confident that the situation is well in hand and will proceed now with a criminal investigation into the matter.

With that, happy new year, and I'll be happy to answer any questions you have.


QUESTION: ... a preliminary test?

QUESTION: ... going in and leaving and moving around?

NICHOLS: Right now, people here can leave. We should have the building opened here very shortly for people to enter again also. We did not (ph) do an evacuation of the building until we did an analysis of the substance.

Now, we know it's not hazardous in nature, and the building will return to normal business here very shortly.

QUESTION: Can we get back in?

NICHOLS: Yes, very soon, the press should be allowed back in.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) irradiated before it comes to the Capitol.

QUESTION: Is there any chance this could have been hazardous, but was irradiated?

NICHOLS: Well, that's something we're going to look into. While we know now that the substance is not hazardous, as you know, as I've announced previously, all the mail coming to the Capitol complex, whether it's on the House or Senate side, goes through an irradiation process before it comes to our complex.

After that, after it's received, after irradiation, there is an initial security screening that's done on the mail before it's delivered. This mail did go through all of the security procedures before it reached its final destination.

With that knowledge in hand, plus with the negative tickets (ph) that we have of our biological examinations, we're confident nothing of a hazardous nature is here. What we don't know, and what further analysis will tell is, what that substance is.

QUESTION: In the past you have not commented on preliminary tests. Is this a preliminary test or a final test?

NICHOLS: Well, a field ticket, as I said before October 15, it's a down and dirty test. What it does is give us an initial indication of whether we're dealing with a hazardous material or not. This has turned back, unlike October 15, these tests have come back negative. So we know that it's not a hazardous material at this point.

While we don't know exactly what it is, because it's still in a process of being investigated. We do know it's not hazardous.

QUESTION: Can you say anything more about the letter itself, the envelope, what it looks like...

NICHOLS: No. I'm sorry, I can't. It's part of a criminal investigation. I can't describe the envelope, its postmark, anything of that nature at this point. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) it is negative, there are going to be no further tests.

NICHOLS: No, no. What we know now is the field test came back negative. So we know whatever the substance is, is not hazardous.

What now is going to happen, the FBI will take the material as evidence. They'll do further analysis and they'll determine exactly what it is.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) your procedures that you outlined a moment ago, in terms of searching letters, should this letter have gotten through into the Capitol?

NICHOLS: To me, that's a misconception here. All the letters get through. All the letters that are destined for the Capitol complex will be set off for irradiation by the U.S. Postal Service before it even arrives at the Capitol complex. And that is, of course, is intended to kill any hazardous material that may be contained in the letters.

Once the letters arrive within the Capitol complex, there is additional screening that goes on, actually off-site, before it's delivered to its ultimate destination inside the Capitol. So it's a two-step screening process that this letter has gone through, as all letters do, before it even reaches the Capitol complex.

QUESTION: So was the letter opened at any point during the search process?

NICHOLS: The letter was opened in Senator Daschle's office.

What I can't do is go through exactly what our security procedures are for screening mail.

But the letter was opened in Senator Daschle's suite. That's how the threatening note was found and, of course, that's how we discovered it was powdered substance inside.

QUESTION: Was the letter irradiated? You know, with the irradiation, could be that you killed whatever was hazardous originally?

NICHOLS: I can't rule that out. But what I'm not going to do is speculate on what may or may not be in there.

What I know now and what I can tell you definitively right now is, whatever was in the envelope is not hazardous.

QUESTION: What did the field test tested for? For example, what are the things that were ruled out?

NICHOLS: There are a number. The field test is done for a number of hazardous materials. Anthrax, of course, is one, and we ruled that out. QUESTION: The question really then becomes, can you tell from the field test if this had been a hazardous material prior to its irradiation?

NICHOLS: No. We cannot tell that from the field test. But further analysis will be done on this letter, on the substance, and we can tell from there.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) that it's possible that it might have, in fact, been anthrax, but irradiated and rendered harmless?

NICHOLS: What I can tell you right now is, whatever the substance is -- and I don't know definitely what it is until further analysis is done -- whatever the substance is is not hazardous at this point.

QUESTION: One other question. Is it possible that this particular envelope came into the Capitol Building outside of normal mail processes? In other words, was it walked in?

NICHOLS: No. We have a way to know that this mail has gone through the screening process.

QUESTION: Do you know where the letter came from?



NICHOLS: They opened the letter and notified U.S. Capitol Police.

QUESTION: It looked like Senator Daschle just left the building. Was he anywhere near the letter when it was opened and was he urged to leave the building?


QUESTION: Do you know what police (OFF-MIKE)

NICHOLS: Yes. That's information that will be part of our protective operations. I'm sorry, I just can't detail the movements of any our members for you.

QUESTION: Do you know where the letter came from?

NICHOLS: That's information that's going to be part of the criminal investigation. We'll look into that.

QUESTION: What did they say when they contacted the police -- and they said we have something that looks a little (OFF-MIKE)

NICHOLS: That's information we don't release. They called us with a concern that there was a suspicious letter in their office. We responded according to our protocols and handled it accordingly. The teams go in, as we have in the past, determine that there is a substance in the letter. We do various tests and determine if it's hazardous or not. We determined this is not hazardous.

QUESTION: Are you going to test the cell structure of whatever this is, to see whether it was at one time hazardous? You're really saying it's not hazardous at this point.

NICHOLS: Right. What I'm saying is it's not hazardous -- you're exactly right. This material is not hazardous right now. What I can't tell you is what the material is.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) going to go back to the army labs, retest it the way you tested the other stuff?

NICHOLS: It's going to be turned over to the FBI. It's part of an ongoing criminal investigation. You know, the FBI will do further testing on this.

QUESTION: You mentioned that it was a powdery looking substance. Can you, in any other way describe it? Was it white powder, was it...


NICHOLS: It was a powdery substance.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) How did this letter, bottom line, get into the Capitol, while it contained a substance, a suspicious substance?

NICHOLS: This letter gets into the Capitol complex like every other letter does; it comes through the mail system. What I'm telling you is that before it gets to the Capitol complex it goes through an irradiation process, which renders whatever material maybe in those letters safe.

Once it goes through that process, it's delivered to the Capitol complex, it's taken to an off-sight delivery center for the House side and for the Senate side, where it goes through additional screening procedures before it even arrives within the Capitol complex.

Even with all those safeguards in place, when we have a call for a suspicious letter, we err on the side of caution, and we respond accordingly. And we take precautions as we did in this case.

QUESTION: Are you going to be testing at the sites where the irradiation is conducted, and has the CDC been alerted to go there and test prior to the irradiation for the possibility of a toxic substance?

NICHOLS: We have -- interesting question. We have protocols that we follow. What we know is this material is not hazardous. So that area is for occupancy by anybody. We do have notifications in place, as we've always had, that we've had this letter found, and we're doing additional testing. What we know is, that's it's not hazardous.

QUESTION: Are you testing where the irradiation is done, as opposed to the toxic substance...

NICHOLS: Oh, I understand. OK, now I understand what you're saying.

NICHOLS: We'll notify the U.S. Postal Service that this has been -- that we have found this letter, and we'll follow -- I assume, and I can't speak for the Postal Service or the FBI, but I assume, just like we did on October 15th and when we found the Leahy letter, they'll backtrack through the postal system.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) seeing, was it all Capitol Police or were there other personnel who came from other agencies?

NICHOLS: The U.S. Capitol Police has primary responsibility. We have notifications that go out to other agencies. FBI was the other primary agency that responded. All of the testing was conducted -- the field testing was conducted by the FBI. I'm sorry, the field testing was conducted by the U.S. Capitol Police, will notify the FBI of the results.

QUESTION: Lieutenant how do you suspect that the....

NICHOLS: We don't put out numbers of response, for security reasons.

QUESTION: How do you (OFF-MIKE) that is something that's been rendered harmless by your procedures or do you suspect it was just a copycat attempt and not ever serious at all?

NICHOLS: It's way too early. I mean, this happened just a few minutes ago. I'm getting the information out to you as quickly as I can. What I can't do is speculate.

What I can do is tell you that we received this letter. It was suspicious. It contained a powdery substance. The results came back negative, and now it's going to be turned into a criminal investigation.

QUESTION: Why did the screening process fail to find powder (OFF-MIKE)

NICHOLS: I'm sorry.

QUESTION: How did the screening process fail to find this powder?

NICHOLS: I -- it didn't. You know, I can't answer this question any better than I already have. There's an irradiation process, an additional screening process. If there is powder in an envelope, it's rendered safe before it reaches its destination, whether it has powder or not. I mean, I just can't make myself any more clear on that.

QUESTION: If it's screened at this off-site facility, what is the purpose of that, if not to detect powder or any threatening letters, you know? I don't understand what that second step is all about. NICHOLS: It could be that the irradiation that's gone through has rendered that powder that's in the envelope safe, OK, and you can't rule that out.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the off-site screening?

NICHOLS: There are other things that come through the mail that are dangerous, not just anthrax. We screen for other materials also.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) not denying the fact that (OFF-MIKE)

NICHOLS: I'm not saying that.

NICHOLS: I'm not going to tell you -- it would be ridiculous for me to stand here and tell you what we can and cannot detect or what we do and don't look for.

What I can tell you is that there are very intense security procedures that go through -- that are put in place for the mail. And that went through all of those procedures.

QUESTION: Have you seen the letter?

NICHOLS: No, I have not personally seen the letter.

QUESTION: Has anything else suspicious been found where the irradiation process took place, in other words, where this came from? Is there an investigation there, and has anything been determined?

NICHOLS: That would be a question for the U.S. Postal Service.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) precautionary medical measures being taken?

NICHOLS: No, that's a normal protocol that we follow.


NICHOLS: No, their notification is a normal protocol that we follow. There's nothing of a hazardous nature found, so there's, therefore, no reason to do any kind of other medical precautionary measures.

QUESTION: Where is Senator Daschle?

NICHOLS: I'm sorry, I can't give the location of the members of Congress. I can tell you, he was in the Capitol. I can tell you that he's safe; he was apprised of the situation, and he's also been apprised that it's been rendered safe.


NICHOLS: That's part of the criminal investigation. I can tell you that we're confident down through the screening processes that we have in place.

(CROSSTALK) NICHOLS: I don't have a date on Hart Building reopening right now. As soon as I do, I'll be happy to let you all know.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) visitors in the building today?

NICHOLS: Oh, yes, there are visitors in the building. The immediate area was closed, of course. People couldn't go in or out. We took the additional precaution of not allowing anybody else into the Capitol building while we analyze the situation.

That's all I have. Thank you for all your patience. See you all later.

WOODRUFF: Lieutenant Dan Nichols, who is the spokesman for the U.S. Capitol Police, confirming essentially what CNN reported a little while ago, and that is that a letter was found, was opened, apparently, in the office of Senator Tom Daschle inside the Capitol building. Now this is a different office from the Hart Senate office building. This is leadership office. The letter was found. It had a threatening note in it. It had a powdery substance in it. However, as we just heard from Lieutenant Nichols, there was a preliminary analysis done, and it was determined that whatever the substance was, it is not hazardous now.

Joining us from the studio, Kate, it is pretty clear that is it possible that that substance could have been hazardous earlier.

KATE SNOW, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right, right, and let's explain why. After the Daschle letter, which is the first letter sent to Daschle in the Hart Senate office building. After that letter appeared, they changed some things, they decided they needed to be more careful about letters and the other letters found addressed to Tom Brokaw and others. They changed the system, where they now take, the U.S. Postal Service, takes all mail destined for Washington D.C. and sends to two locations. One of them in Ohio in Lima, Ohio, one in Bridgeport, New Jersey, and that mail into Washington sent to the locations to be irradiated, to be cleaned up to make sure if there was any anthrax inside mail coming into the Postal Service in Washington, that it would be irradiated and taken care of before it reaches the mail system here, and then goes to U.S. Capitol which, of course, has its own internal capitol mail system, and the U.S. Capitol specifically has an off-sight delivery center, where they take U.S. mail and then distribute it into the Capitol system.

And Lieutenant Nichols being very clear to say that there's a second process there, that happens off-site, just about 10 blocks south of the U.S. Capitol building that you look at there, and that process, I'm told by a source, includes a machine that shakes the letter, and then puts a small cut in the corner of the letter to make sure and see if there's any substance inside. You might wonder, then, why did this letter get through that elaborate system? We don't know the answer to that, Judy, but we know that it went through two processes. One, it was sent presumably outside of Washington to be irradiated, and then two, it went through the screening process on Capitol Hill. The bottom line is it's not hazardous now, but it could have been at one time. WOODRUFF: And the good news is that you say it's not hazardous now.

All right, Kate Snow joining us here in the Washington studio.




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