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MARGARET WARNER: Investigators continued their probe today into the source of a deadly toxin ricin found in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s office on Monday. For an update on the investigation I’m joined by Elaine Shannon, correspondent for Time magazine. Welcome back.
ELAINE SHANNON: Thanks, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: Tell us what is new in this investigation.
ELAINE SHANNON: They said today they believe the package arrived in the mail as opposed to other means, but they still haven’t found the package, the envelope, the box, whatever, that this powder came from. So they know it’s definitely ricin, and they know it came into this facility and it wasn’t slipped in by some tourist or something like that. But that’s about it. They’re still looking for the envelope, hoping that it will be writing and things on it.
MARGARET WARNER: But they have been able to eliminate the possibility that it was sort of planted. I notice that Frist got a question about that today.
ELAINE SHANNON: It seems so, yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Now I know investigators are pursuing whether their leads to the earlier cases this fall where ricin was sent to federal agencies. Take us through those, start with the one in South Carolina.
ELAINE SHANNON: That was in Greenville, S.C., in October, going through the mail facility, they found a mail addressed to the U.S. Department of Transportation and it was signed by a “Fallen Angel” and it was complaining about new rules on truckers that went into effect Jan. 4, which required them to sleep for ten hours instead of eight hours, and if these rules weren’t changed, then this person was going to make ricin, and the person enclosed a sample which was in a little sort of bullet-shaped metal container. Looks like a little key fob or something and it was real. It was real ricin.
MARGARET WARNER: And I gather on the package whoever sent it actually identified caution, ricin inside.
ELAINE SHANNON: Right, so it wasn’t like the anthrax letters. It didn’t just fly out. And that’s one reason I’m sure they’re wondering if this is the same sender because this did just dump out.
MARGARET WARNER: Now in that case, authorities reacted very swiftly and quite publicly, didn’t they?
ELAINE SHANNON: They did. And in January after the regulations went into effect, they posted a $100,000 reward on the FBI Web site for this person obviously because they hadn’t been — they had probably gone through all the trucking organizations and interviewed people associating with the industry and couldn’t find anybody who was so angry that they would do such a crazy thing.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now in November there was another thing which none of us heard about until yesterday. Tell us about that one.
ELAINE SHANNON: Well, it turns out there was a second letter with the same kind of canister, and pretty much the same letter also signed by the Fallen Angel, complaining about trucking regulations and it was addressed to the White House and it showed up in a White House mail handling facility.
MARGARET WARNER: And again this was offsite, correct?
ELAINE SHANNON: It wasn’t in the White House, yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, in that case, there was a big flap today about whether the Secret Service adequately notified other law enforcement agencies about this one. What have you been able to find out about that?
ELAINE SHANNON: Well, there is a difference of opinion, as the president likes to say. The president’s briefer Scott McClellan said the FBI and other agencies were notified immediately. I’ve talked to three officials from these other agencies who said, no, there was about a nine-day, ten-day lag between the time the letter was discovered and the time that other agencies, such as the FBI, were notified.
MARGARET WARNER: Will the FBI — does the FBI want to clarify this?
ELAINE SHANNON: Oh, I think so, but I think mainly they want to get anybody who is sitting around ricin. The letter, when they did get it was pretty much the same. The type face on the note was the same. They don’t have the person they think — the game is to see if this one is linked.
MARGARET WARNER: I noticed today that some members of Congress were actually pounding on the Department of Homeland Security saying I thought post-9/11, I thought you people were all supposed to talk to each other all the time.
ELAINE SHANNON: Yeah. Things fall through cracks. We haven’t heard the last of this yet. I don’t know what really happened. Maybe there was a conference call and the person in it just forgot, but I’ve talked to several people who say no, there was a bit of a lag, and, you know, it doesn’t change the evidence because we don’t get a fingerprint or DNA off the sample second that we didn’t have the first, but it’s just one of those things. Welcome to the bureaucracy.
MARGARET WARNER: Now to the question of whether they’re related to the stuff found in Frist’s office, not even in a letter. What leads are they pursuing there? For instance, can they test the substance to find out if it comes from the same batch or whatever?
ELAINE SHANNON: Sure. Eventually you can do very fine testing to see if there’s, you know, similarity in batches or the same additives or the same dust, the same impurities. It takes a long time and it would be much better to find a note writing paper, other things that would give you much more forensic stuff to work with.
MARGARET WARNER: Have the previous letters been preserved?
ELAINE SHANNON: Oh, Lord yes. All of that would be preserved as evidence. They didn’t have prints or DNA or anything like that, and I’m not sure that they can — they say if the note was printed by a computer printer, and I’m not sure whether it was, but it was not handwritten, they may not be able to find the printer unless they find the person, find the printer and say — they’re just too much alike.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, of course this came up with anthrax as well, at least originally, the whole idea of was it connected to international terrorism. What’s the thinking in law enforcement circles?
ELAINE SHANNON: It could be. Over the years, there have been domestic cranks and people who claim to be believe this and that — some of them ideological, some of them just nutty who have produced ricin. You can go to the Internet; you can get castor beans, if you really want to go to the trouble and the risk, you can do it.
We also know that Ansar al-Islam, the group that was operating in northern Iraq, was making it and we also know about a group related to that in London which was making it. So it could be. It certainly wreaked havoc with the capitol. That’s why we saw Bill Frist trying to be reassuring and saying we’re going to be going about business and usual and we’re going to open up these buildings pretty fast.
MARGARET WARNER: And pointing out to everyone that no one has found to be suffering from any illness.
ELAINE SHANNON: That’s right.
MARGARET WARNER: Elaine Shannon, thank you.