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Anthrax Threat

October 25, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Working alongside the FBI on this case is the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement and security arm of the Postal Service. The Postal Inspection Service investigates all crimes that misuse the mails, from mail fraud and theft to illegal mailings of bombs, narcotics, or child pornography. The head of that service, chief postal inspector Kenneth Weaver, joins me now. He manages a force of 1,400 postal police officers, and another 1,900 postal inspectors. Welcome, Mr. Weaver.

KENNETH WEAVER: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: First of all, the new development today, the State Department mail worker who has apparently contracted anthrax or suspected to have at this suburban Virginia mail processing facility, what can you tell us about how anthrax-laden mail may have gotten there?

KENNETH WEAVER: Well, we don’t have a lot of details right now on that, Margaret, but I can say that all mail destined for federal offices in the Washington, D.C. area are processed through the Brentwood facility. And then most of those are picked up by the various agencies at the facility and then worked in their mailrooms.

MARGARET WARNER: So is this State Department mail processing facility where this worker worked, is that part of the U.S. Postal Service or a State Department run operation?

KENNETH WEAVER: That is a State Department run operation at a remote site.

MARGARET WARNER: I see. Then you said though since all Washington government mail goes through Brentwood, does that mean that all different cabinet agencies now are or should be doing the same kind of sweeping and testing of their mail receiving facilities as the State Department was?

KENNETH WEAVER: Well, we’re looking at that mail very closely right now and doing a lot of things to screen that mail at the present time. Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean for all the different departments?

KENNETH WEAVER: Yes, for all the government agencies, all mail going into there, we’re taking a very close look at it right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, as an investigator in this case, are you and the FBI proceeding with the sort of working hypothesis that all the infections or exposures that we’ve seen in the Washington area came from this one letter to Senator Daschle?

KENNETH WEAVER: That’s difficult to say. Certainly it was a very concentrated ingredient in that anthrax, as Governor Ridge indicated, but to say that there’s only one letter, we can’t absolutely say. We are investigating, we are looking very closely at all the mail and making sure that we safeguard our employees and safeguard the American people.

MARGARET WARNER: So, step back now and give us just a sense of how far along you think you are, you and the FBI, in your investigation into who mailed these letters.

KENNETH WEAVER: Well, of course, we have three mailings, three individual letters that contained anthrax. They were all postmarked out of the Trenton, New Jersey area and we are processing all the leads available in that area. In fact, just yesterday we had a town hall meeting in Trenton where we solicited leads from the community and also spoke with them. And tonight, we have a town hall meeting with the chiefs of police in the various communities around there.

MARGARET WARNER: And have you been able to pinpoint exactly where or even approximately where these letters were mailed that went into the Trenton facility?

KENNETH WEAVER: Well, that’s what we’re trying to find out. Where did these letters enter the mail stream and also trace them back and see if we can come up with any leads on any potential suspects. Just because it’s got a Trenton postmark on it doesn’t necessarily mean it was deposited into the mail in Trenton.

MARGARET WARNER: And so this earlier report, last week, that you all thought because there was one mail carrier on a specific route that she had somehow picked up the letter, I gather that’s no longer operative.

KENNETH WEAVER: Well, we’re following that. I mean we’re checking every lead. We’ve interviewed, I think, everybody with the FBI, interviewed everybody on that route, and following up on those leads as we go.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean there are – what — more than 40 different post offices that actually feed into Trenton.

KENNETH WEAVER: Yes, that’s correct.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there anything on letters – you know, we all see those little bar codes now on letters, does that help identify where it came from in the sort of Trenton area?

KENNETH WEAVER: Well, the bar code on front identifies the address information that’s on the piece of… on the envelope. On the back, there is a bar code also that identifies where it was processed in the facility and at what time. So it does help us narrow down the times.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, as an investigator or based on your experience, do you make an assumption — not an assumption, but do you have a hypothesis about whether the people or person who mailed these letters — and there were a couple of different times I gather, September 18 and then October 9 — that they probably live in the Trenton area or that they probably don’t?

KENNETH WEAVER: Well, that’s one thing about our mail system. You can deposit a piece of mail anywhere in the United States. And just because we have the postmarks from Trenton doesn’t necessarily mean the individual lives there. But that’s the center and that’s the focus of the investigation right now.

MARGARET WARNER: So put your… Put us in your shoes. How do you go about trying to find this needle in a haystack? What kinds of people do you talk to? What are you looking for?

KENNETH WEAVER: And, again, we’re getting a lot of information from our own employees. They’re coming forward and telling us information or things that might not look right to them, as are the citizens around that area. But we’re also looking very closely at the documents. And we pay particular attention to that. And at the appropriate time in conjunction with the FBI, those documents will be analyzed and hopefully provide us with some evidence.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you’re talking about the letters themselves, both the envelopes and the letters. And I think we’re going to put up a little picture of those. I gather your service has great forensic experience or expertise in analyzing letters. Tell us about what you’re able to analyze.

KENNETH WEAVER: Well, we do. And I should give the FBI a little credit, too. They also have very good forensic. But since we do deal with the mail and crimes committed through the mails, we do pride ourselves in our document analysts. And that means looking at fingerprint analysis. That also means looking at handwriting analysis and deciphering that, DNA analysis and also the texture of the paper.

MARGARET WARNER: Even ink?

KENNETH WEAVER: And inks, various inks, exactly.

MARGARET WARNER: What about stamping?

KENNETH WEAVER: Stamping, yes, that would come into it also.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean I gather that on these letters, these were pre-stamped envelopes. Now, are those so widely available that that’s not a good clue?

KENNETH WEAVER: Yes, I mean they’re sold at any post office, pre-embossed envelopes.

MARGARET WARNER: Have you all been able– you said when you’re really able to, are you being held up from being able to do that forensic analysis because the letters are still contaminated?

KENNETH WEAVER: Well, that’s a very good point too. We’re in new ground here. I mean, this is the first instance in our history where we’ve had anthrax sent through the mail. So I think we’re all learning a lot from this and we want to be very, very careful. Yes, they are contaminated, and we want to make sure that we handle them appropriately, that we don’t destroy any possible evidence and that we don’t put anybody in harm’s way in doing it.

MARGARET WARNER: So have you been able to really go to work on them in terms of the physical, not the handwriting, but the actual physical letter?

KENNETH WEAVER: Well, we’re working on that right now and they’re working through that, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Now you and the FBI last week posted $1 million reward for anyone who could come forward with information. Has that generated a lot of tips? Here we have the reward poster. Has it generated a lot of tips and can you say how useful they might be?

KENNETH WEAVER: Well, I wish I could tell you we got the one tip that we needed to bring this person to justice, but we have had about 125 tips come in as a result of the reward notice. And, of course, we’re working in that in conjunction with America’s Most Wanted, too, and that’s very helpful. These tips range from not very valuable to some that may have some promising information in them. But we just have to follow every one of them.

MARGARET WARNER: Your most famous case tracking someone who sent a weapon through the mail, the Unabomber case 17 years, in the end was cracked really when his brother came forward.

KENNETH WEAVER: Absolutely. I mean, his brother came forward, recognized a manuscript that Mr. Kaczynski had published and we were able to bring that case to fruition.

MARGARET WARNER: So might it take something like that?

KENNETH WEAVER: Sure. We’re going to use every tool available to us. Again this is a very serious situation. We want to make sure the American people feel safe with their mail, our employees are safe. This has been a real violation against our country.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. Weaver, thank you so much.

KENNETH WEAVER: You’re welcome, Margaret. Thank you.