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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Bill First Holds Press Conference on Capitol Hill

Aired February 4, 2004 - 14:10   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Also I'm being told we are expecting at any time a live press conference on Capitol Hill. As soon as Senator Bill Frist steps up to the mike to update all of us on what's taking on that ricin scare there at the Senate. Actually, he is walking up to the mike right now. Let's go ahead listen in. See what the senator has to say.
SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER: Good afternoon. In our attempt to keep people apprised of what's always an evolving situation when you have a traumatic event like this, we wanted to come and make a preliminary or intermediate sort of report back to you. I say preliminary or intermediate, because you never know what's going to happen in the next hour or what you're going to find.

And the whole purpose of doing the surveillance that we are doing, the examination of filtering systems throughout the Capitol complex or the collection of mail, you just simply don't know. And so it's hard to make definitive statements, and so the best thing we can do is update all of you to update our colleagues and the American people on a regular basis.

I just left the floor of the United States Senate to update my colleagues who heard it for the first time because the decision was made just about 30 minutes ago in terms of the reopening of the Senate office buildings. We have closed three Senate office buildings now in response to the ricin incident. All three of those office buildings remain closed.

We have begun to allow very limited access but only to the senators after they are briefed in order to obtain essential materials. And I made that statement on the floor of the United States Senate, and a few senators will and a few senators won't.

What I now say is most important is the schedule for the reopening of the buildings. And again, that may change, but this is the proposal that after consultation with the broad range of people from public safety, to medical, to the attending physician, to all of our technical counselors that we have come to.

The Russell Senate Office Building will open tomorrow, Thursday, noon, February 5. The Hart Senate Office Building will open Friday morning, 9:00 a.m., February the 6th.

The Dirksen Senate Office Building, which is the site where this -- which is being treated as a crime scene, specifically my personal office and that area, but that is the building -- will open -- that is the Dirksen Building, not my office in particular, but the Dirksen Building -- will open Monday, 7:00 a.m., February 9.

One more time, this is the proposal and this is the goal. It's achievable based on the pace and what we have learned over the last 24 hours in terms of removing -- doing appropriate surveillance and removing mail from those buildings.

A couple of other just quick contacts -- sort of I guess two or three points. No. 1, in terms of our understanding of ricin, the impact, all of you know, this is a -- an agent that terrorizes in the sense that it is an agent that is new, has been used as a weapon of bioterror -- not a weapon of mass destruction, but bioterror. And the purpose of an agent is to scare people and to frighten them.

And this agent can do just that as all of you know because of the unknown. It has not been used to kill or to maim or to harm in this inhaled form. Yet we know that that -- and this is nothing new -- what was observed was a powder. And all of us know, powder could be put into the air. And we know that ricin when inhaled, in animal models, deadly, kills, no treatment. And that's a sense of urgency.

The good news that we continue to report, everybody is doing great. We're outside of the window of where one would expect to at the see any symptoms at all. And it looks like it was very contained today to the site of -- the immediate site, meaning in my office and an area which will further be defined.

No. 2, I again want to contemplate my staff members' response. Over the last 2 1/2 years we've gone through extensive training programs with protocols, staff training, member training in terms of how to respond with mail, with any sort of potential criminal assault, terrorist assault. And my staff members, again, once it was identified has a response that was very appropriate.

And that means when you've got a poison, when you've a toxin that you know can kill, that is active, you want to have that procedure in place. So the system, I'm very pleased with. And I really say that to applaud my staff.

With that, I've relied tremendously -- when I say I, I really do mean Senate leadership, Republican and Democrat working together. It happens to be my office and I happen to be majority leader. But again, Senator Daschle and I have worked step wise every point of the way. And that's appropriate. So I want to thank the entire Senate leadership.

But our working together really does fall with who I'm about to introduce once again. You all know him, Chief Terry Gainer, chief of the Capitol Police, who's done a superb job in overall organization. And Chief gainer will give a more technical update now. And I'll be referring most of the questions about the criminal investigation to him. But then we'll be happy to answer a few questions. Chief?

CHIEF TERRANCE GAINER, CAPITOL POLICE: Thank you, Senator.

Also, we're going to have a full press conference with some other participants at 4:30 today. But as -- at this moment, the investigative strategy continues in joint work with the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force. And our officers worked through most of last night gathering additional evidence from the Dirksen Building in the center of the -- the epicenter of where this began, as well as the strategy in consultation and work with a lot of other agencies, like the senator mentions, which includes the United States Marine Corps and the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI and our agency, to begin the picking up of mail, unopened mail, that is in the various buildings.

And last night, we can substantially concluded the work in this Capitol so that the Capitol is fully open for business except for a few areas because of security reasons that we're proceeding a little bit slower in there just to maintain those secure areas.

But given the amount of help that we're -- have been given, and given of the air sampling and other scientific and environmental analysis that we've done, we're able to proceed smartly and quickly through our plan both on the Senate side and on the House side.

So on the House side, we'll begin working a building tonight at 7:00 p.m. And we'll work through the evening to complete that building. And then methodically go through their buildings. And at the same time, meet the schedule that the Senate leadership and Senator Frist has agreed to here.

So we're very happy with the progress. There's no specific information yet about what caused this or what could have caused this. We're well linked with the other law enforcement agencies, well aware of what's going on elsewhere in the country. And feel pretty comfortable the way everything's going. Thank you.

FRIST: What I'd like to do is take -- we'll take a couple questions, but in two hours we're going to do sort of a full-blown press conference. And we'll do that upstairs. Is that correct? Where's it going to be?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (OFF-MIKE)

FRIST: Radio TV Gallery. We'll do that upstairs.

And again part of this is seeing familiar faces. So I'll probably be there again. I'm going refer most of the questions to the chief and sergeant of arms and the attending physician. But we'll do that at 4:30.

We're going to take a couple of quick questions.

QUESTION: The markets responded pretty heavily to this incident. Should they have been as worried as they were?

FRIST: What did?

QUESTION: The markets. They responded pretty heavily to this. Should they have been as worried about this incident as they appear to have been? FRIST: I don't know about the relationship between the markets and the assault, criminal assault. And so it's hard for me to relate the two.

I can say the fact that we haven't missed a beat, government continues, we've been on the floor of the United States Senate, we haven't had really to alter our schedule at all, we're conducting business. Shows that we responded appropriately. At the same time, all of you here have been able to witness what the markets probably don't see, and that is an integrated, coordinated response.

QUESTION: Can you tell us if you've isolated the envelope or if you've isolated how the substance got into the office?

GAINER: I can tell you that the investigation is methodical, it's following a strategy and it's ongoing with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And we're not prepared to disclose that publicly.

But there is, again, at the moment, like last night or the day before, there's no smoking letter information that helps tie this thing together. We're keeping an open mind. We're looking at all the facts. And it's being jointly analyzed with the help of the FBI.

FRIST: Let's take one more question and then we're going to be right. We're going to back in just a little bit.

QUESTION: What about the strength of the ricin? Do you know yet how strong it was?

FRIST: It's fascinating to me from a medical-scientific standpoint. The testing that began immediately -- and all of you watched anthrax play out. Specificity, sensitivity, screening tests, they get more refined. All of that started taking place immediately. And those tested are under way.

I'm not aware of any new data. I know there's nothing back as early this morning in terms of how do you characterize it. How big it is, how many microns it is, does it stick together, are there additives? None of that information is back yet.

And when it's available, we will release it as sort of soon as we can.

With that, we'll be back in a couple of hours, we'll be upstairs to answer questions. Thank you.

PHILLIPS: Senator Bill Frist there addressing reporters side by side with the Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer saying that the investigation of course continues into that ricin scare in the Senate buildings. Capitol Police said that no one has developed any symptoms related to poisoning by ricin.

You'll remember the three buildings, housing senators offices, have remained closed today. The senator saying that possibly Monday his office reopening, the area around his office. It was discovered in a mail room that serves the senator's office and therefore, he is the one that's pretty much taken on the role of addressing reporters when it comes to the investigation.

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