Anthrax Threat Spreads to White House: Officials Say No Cause for Alarm

The White House is insisting there's no cause for alarm following the discovery of anthrax at an off-site White House mailroom. CBS's Bill Plante explains.



Traces of anthrax have been detected on a letter-opening machine at the remote military facility that processes White House mail. The mail there comes from the Brentwood main post office, where anthrax has been discovered. Workers there and at the actual White House mailroom will be tested. Officials say no one at either the base or the White House mailroom has shown symptoms.



The Brentwood facility remained closed today after confirmation that two workers there died from the inhaled form of anthrax. Health officials today ordered testing on all postal employees in the region and came under sharp criticism for dragging their feet.



At a congressional hearing--held off campus because Capitol Hill offices were still closed--Health Secretary Tommy Thompson as much as admitted the government dropped the ball and declared procedures will change immediately.



"When a case for anthrax does emerge...we will immediately move in at any and all postal facilities that might have handled that piece of mail," said Thompson.



The Brentwood cases also expose a huge hole in the public health system. One of the victims checked into the emergency room of a Maryland hospital early Sunday morning. After X-rays and blood tests, doctors diagnosed him with the flu and sent him home. He came back a day later in an ambulance and died within 6 hours.



Public health expert Steven Rottman says officials are playing catch-up with the threat.



"I don't think that we were adequately prepared to deal with a threat like this," says Rottman, who works at the UCLA School of Public Health. "I think the dimensions of it, and I think some of the subtleties of it were not appreciated in the planning phase."



The president won't say if he's been tested, but this emphatic statement suggests he may have been:



"First of all, I don't have anthrax," says President Bush.



A White House spokesman says he's confident that because of enhanced security measures, which he wouldn't describe, there's great confidence that anthrax is not an issue here.



"We're making sure that the West Wing, the White House, is safe. Let me put it this way: I'm confident that when I come to work tomorrow that I'll be safe," says Bush.



Asked again if he believes the anthrax attacks are the work of Osama bin Laden's Al Quaeda network, the president wouldn't rule it out.



"You know, it wouldn't surprise me that they're involved with this. But I have no direct evidence," says Bush.



The new director of homeland security said the White House mail facility incident is being handled like all the others.



"Precautionary measures were taken. The investigation is ongoing," says Director Tom Ridge. "It's still business as usual. We still have business to conduct."



Sources tell CBS News they're leaning toard the theory that some pieces of White House mail picked up the trace of anthrax on their way through the Brentwood mail center. In any case, it's not likely any of it ever got to the White House. But the symbolism isn't something the administration welcomes.




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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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