Tommy Thompson had to see the president--right away. The secretary of Health and Human Services had just gotten the latest test results on the anthrax found in Sen. Tom Daschle's office, and the bottom line now was clear. The stuff was sophisticated product: pure, finely milled and--this was key--treated to hang, suspended in midair, an invisible but deadly weapon of bioterror. Its quality might explain how a single letter could have produced two deaths, the partial paralysis of the Postal Service--and George W. Bush's first crisis in an unprecedented war at home.
Thompson rushed to the Oval Office and met with the president and with Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security. The plan was for Ridge to go to the White House briefing room and announce the latest news. But after he left the Oval, Ridge made some calls and discovered disagreement on the meaning of the tests. Thompson and the medical people had one take, the FBI and defense types another. Ridge and Bush adviser Karen Hughes interrupted a National Security Council meeting to tell the president that the "presser" was off. Bush told them to "get everybody together and work it out." Ridge, in an interview with NEWSWEEK, recalled what came next: "I picked up the phone and said, 'I need scientists!' " That night, in the Roosevelt Room, he presided over a tense meeting of top officials and experts. He told them to share info with each other--and take orders from him.
In some respects the Anthrax War has gone well. Since the first contaminated letter was traced in Florida in September, there have been only 14 cases of anthrax (seven inhaled, seven on the skin) and only three deaths. An estimated 14,000 workers have been treated with ciprofloxacin or other antibiotics; thousands more have been tested, and tested negative. Emergency-room doctors caught cases early, saving lives. "You have to step back to see the system working," Hughes says.
But as a test of homeland preparedness, this anthrax scare is troubling for what it says about the ability of politicians and government to deal with a truly massive bioterror attack. Eager to seem reassuring, officials understated what they knew about the situation, let evidence slip through jurisdictional cracks and engaged in after-the-fact finger-pointing.
Bush, absorbed by the task of running a suddenly grim-looking war abroad, appeared less obviously in command at home. He approved new funds for smallpox vaccines and security at the Postal Service, lobbied lawmakers on airport security and economic revival, met every morning with Ridge and law-enforcement officials. But the president seemed determined to let Ridge do the heavy lifting on anthrax, while husbanding his own attention and popularity. Despite Ridge's shaky public performance, Bush genuinely likes and trusts him, as do law-enforcement and congressional leaders. Introducing himself at meetings, Ridge holds up a comically complex flow chart showing the 46 agencies he has to weld together into a Homeland Defense force. "Ridge is the designated punching bag," says one top Republican on Capitol Hill.
At times last week the capital seemed under siege. The Postal Service's central Brentwood facility was closed after two of its workers died and two others were hospitalized. Traces of contamination were found in three U.S. House offices, a local post-office substation and the off-site mailrooms of the White House, the State Department, the CIA and the Supreme Court. The president felt the need to declare, flatly, "I don't have anthrax"--though how he was sure no one would explain. (As commander in chief, he may earlier have gotten a military vaccine; for security reasons aides refused to say.) Even so, NEWSWEEK has learned, the White House is considering making photocopies of even the Bush family's personal mail. The idea is to avoid contact with anything handled by the Postal Service.
The anthrax's potency was known the night of Oct. 16, after news arrived that 24 workers in the Hart Senate Office Building had tested positive for exposure. Despite this evidence that the anthrax was "aerosolizable," investigators assumed that the heavily taped letter sent to Daschle could not have contaminated "upstream" mail-handling sites. Tests at the Senate bulk-mail-handling facility were negative. But investigators didn't seek advice from the U.S. Postal Service, and no one from the USPS was on the crisis-management team that met regularly in the secretary of the Senate's office.
The leader of that team, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, has drawn on his background as one of the nation's leading heart-transplant surgeons to become Washington's leading political presence on bioterrorism. Indeed, he was the first top-rank official to learn that anthrax in the city may have "jumped" from the Hill. On the night of Friday, Oct. 19, a man came into the emergency room at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia with fateful symptoms. The ER physician, Dr. Cecele Murphy, was on alert. After learning that the patient handled government mail at the post office's Brentwood facility, Murphy suspected anthrax. X-rays and a CT scan showing trouble in the patient's lungs and lymph nodes cinched the diagnosis. Around midnight she called local health officials, who in turn notified the Senate crisis center--and Frist--at 9 a.m. Saturday.
Definitive blood tests wouldn't be available for 24 hours, but Frist knew not to wait. "When I heard about those X-rays I just had a gut reaction," he says. By an hour later, Frist had arranged a conference call, telling Ridge and Thompson to prepare for the worst: a possibly widespread outbreak that could cripple the 200 billion-letters-a-year postal system. Thompson and Ridge ordered an immediate opening of emergency antibiotic stocks, and prepared to dispatch scores of health workers to distribute them the next day.
It's not clear when officials informed the Postal Service of what they knew about the Brentwood employee--and about the implications of his illness. When first asked by NEWSWEEK, a USPS spokesman said the service learned that night. In a public briefing, USPS senior vice president Deborah Willhite said it was earlier, in the afternoon. But a veteran employee told NEWSWEEK that at 5 p.m. that Saturday, workers at Brentwood used blowers to clean the mail-handling machines--a technique investigators think may have spread anthrax contamination.
The man in Virginia remained alive last weekend. The deaths of two of his colleagues produced some official remorse--but mostly artful attempts at bureaucratic self-protection. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control blamed the FBI for sealing off access to the Daschle letter and contents. Other officials accused the U.S. Army lab at Fort Detrick of processing samples too slowly, and castigated a Defense Department official who early on called the material in the Daschle letter "run of the mill." Ridge had insisted at first that the anthrax wasn't "weaponized," only to be forced to reverse himself. Everyone said it was unprecedented and unthinkable that a sealed letter could produce inhalation anthrax.
That left Ridge with two challenges. One was to make sure the administration learned the right lessons from the first battle of the bioterror war: share the relevant data, override bureaucratic inertia, call in the right people--fast--and don't give assurances unless you know they won't evaporate. The other challenge was even harder: to find the culprits. Investigators now think there may be more than one contaminated letter. The FBI, NEWSWEEK has learned, is searching for a letter--with handwriting similar to that in the one Daschle received--sent to House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Meanwhile, investigators are testing the Daschle material further to decipher signs of its origin. They're focusing on coating that may have been used to eliminate the material's tendency to clump together. Some investigators think a clay called bentonite was used in the process. Bentonite, according to U.N. weapons inspectors, was used by Saddam Hussein's bioterror cooks in Iraq. But White House officials were eager to discount that story, telling NEWSWEEK that silica, not bentonite, seemed the most likely coating. Sources said Ridge was studying the question. It was only a matter of time, he knew, before he'd be asked for an answer.