GWEN IFILL: Joining me now to discuss the latest anthrax cases is Michael Coughlin, who served as Deputy Postmaster General from 1987 to 1999 -- he is currently an executive with Accenture, an information technology consulting services firm. And Mohammad Akhter is executive director of the American Public Health Association. He served as Washington, D.C., Health commissioner from 1991 to 1994.
Dr. Akhter, based on what you just heard Tom Ridge lay out, this chain of events, what is your sense of how this could have happened?
DR. MOHAMMED AKHTER: My sense is, first, that the system worked and that the medical authorities really moved as fast as they could to identify the cases. The practitioner reported the cases quickly but the disease was so vicious that people really got sick. My second thing is that this is a new development.
In the past the issues were very clear that a letter would arrive with the white powder, everybody will know it, will notice it. Then we will take appropriate measures. This time the postal worker didn't know. They did not open the mail as far as we know. So the issue here is where did this come from? Is this from the same letter, or was there something else there?
And the second is that these spores really were of much higher quality -- that a lot of them really did go into the air and the people were able to breathe in and get the inhalation anthrax.
GWEN IFILL: Well, you talk about how this is a new thing. How is it that an envelope, which presumably wasn't opened, can result in inhalation anthrax? We've been worried all this time about opening envelopes, powder falling out and then inhaling it or getting it on the skin.
DR. MOHAMMED AKHTER: I really don't know the exact mechanism at the post office. And I think that's why we need to look at the exact source. How did this happen? Was there another envelope that was opened and/or got opened in the process of sorting the mail and then somehow or the other spores got into the air and enough of the spores got into the air to have inhalation anthrax?
One could expect under normal circumstances that a few spores might leak out and might cause the skin anthrax, but to really have inhalation anthrax -- you really need to have between 5,000 to 10,000 spores being inhaled so this is truly a new development and we need to investigate and find out how it happened so we can protect the worker in the future.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Coughlin, the immediate question becomes is it the sorting equipment that perhaps can jostle the envelopes or are they handled so roughly that powder or anything in it could come out?
MICHAEL COUGHLIN: No -- obviously there's high-speed sorting equipment, mail-handling equipment in our big facilities. But you have to remember, as Jack Potter just pointed out, there's billions of pieces of mail a year go through that...those systems and very few of those pieces of mail get damaged in that process. Again, I don't think we know enough about... I certainly don't know enough about anthrax and how it's spread to know whether an envelope moving through a high-speed canceling machine, for example, could end up with stuff that could be inhaled.
GWEN IFILL: Postal officials also say that these high-speed canceling machines are often cleaned with blowers that could potentially blow the dust into the air.
MICHAEL COUGHLIN: Well, as part of the maintenance procedure, the ongoing maintenance procedure for these machines, they do use high-speed or high-pressure air hoses to blow the dust that accumulates over... if you can imagine literally thousands of pieces an hour of paper moving through these high-speed machines, there is some dust that collects -- and in the interest of just keeping the place clean and for the protection of the employees to blow that away. I'm sure though they're going to have to rethink that procedure.
GWEN IFILL: Has the Postal Service ever had to deal with anything of this magnitude before?
MICHAEL COUGHLIN: I can't -- I was in the system for 32 years. In my estimation, this is unprecedented. The only thing that certainly was like this, I suppose, were some of the incidents of violence that took place in post offices a few years ago. Even that was quite different. This is really unprecedented.
GWEN IFILL: Dr. Akhter, the next level of worry I suppose is whether postal letter carriers can then take an anthrax tainted letter and slip it through the mail slot at our homes. Is this something that you think that we should be concerned about?
DR. MOHAMMED AKHTER: I think again until we find out how these people got sick at the post office we will not know more. But certainly there is a possibility that some tainted letters could go and be delivered in our homes, but the possibility of getting a serious disease from a few spores sticking on the outside of the letter would not be as serious beside getting maybe a skin anthrax possibility but not really the possibility does not exist of getting such a serious illness as these postal workers have gotten in the post office.
GWEN IFILL: Governor Ridge talked about how this is one war with two battlefields and that this domestic battlefield, this anthrax war is a new battlefield. Do you think that knowing that, that perhaps these postal employees should have been tested sooner as soon as they were tracing back this letter from Senator Daschle's office?
DR. MOHAMMED AKHTER: I think hindsight is always 20/20. I mean this is a new thing we are just learning as we're going through this process. I think that authorities acted with complete accuracy and as promptly as they could to get to these postal workers. And I'm also very pleased the way the general practitioners acted, that they reported all suspicious cases to the health authorities.
And I understand there are 12 or 13 cases that are being seriously followed to rule out the possibility of anthrax. So I'm, you know, the system is working. But it's unfortunate that this anthrax got released and got vaporized in the air so these people got so sick.
GWEN IFILL: Last time you were on the program, Dr. Akhter, you said that you thought that perhaps the nation is prepared for sporadic outbreaks like this but that a lot of localities are not. Based on your experience in the District of Columbia, do you believe that the District of Columbia and regional and federal officials are here are capable, are prepared to handle this?
DR. MOHAMMED AKHTER:I think the District of Columbia is completely prepared. I have spoken with both Dr. Benjamin, the health commissioner for the - for Maryland and also Dr. Ivan Wachs. I've looked at the arrangements. I think they are perfectly on top of the situation. CDC is also there. The District is prepared but I think if you look at the rest of the country there are areas where there are major gaps. And we still need to strengthen the local and state health departments to make sure that people have the same level of service all across our land.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Coughlin, how about the postal service? Is it prepared for this kind of unpredictable event?
MICHAEL COUGHLIN: Well, they do have a number of contingency plans for a variety of kinds of things. They've had for years and years and years standard procedures for the handling of hazardous materials in the post office and procedures for handling the spills of hazardous materials.
As I said, this particular incident is a bit unprecedented, but I think the postmaster general, his people have moved remarkably quickly to address the situation. I know that Jack Potter has spent hours and hours and hours just in media briefings trying to get the word out to the public and to his own employees about the nature of this problem.
GWEN IFILL: Who within the system is responsible for tracking this down?
MICHAEL COUGHLIN: In terms of the investigative side of it, it is the chief postal inspector. They're handling obviously... trying to find who did this and bring them to justice.
GWEN IFILL: How does that work?
MICHAEL COUGHLIN: The chief post inspector is the head of what is the oldest law enforcement agency in the federal government, and they're charged with enforcing laws involving the use of the mails. Now, in many of their cases, particularly this one, they would work in conjunction with the FBI and with other federal law enforcement agencies. I think that's been clear this past week. You've seen both the chief postal inspector and the postmaster general with the attorney general and the head of the FBI.
GWEN IFILL: The postmaster general also suggested that there's a way perhaps to sanitize the mail using radiation techniques or something that is also used on fruit and food.
MICHAEL COUGHLIN: I'm sure they're looking at all the possibilities now. I've heard some of those speculated about by a variety of people. You have to look at... I think we have to try to figure out how big this problem is and how widespread, keeping in mind the first and most important thing is protecting postal employees and protecting the public from exposure to this. I don't think we want to... I think we want to keep it in perspective, and I know that's hard to say on a day when two people died.
But right now it seems to be confined to a relatively small number of facilities. The postmaster general indicated-- and I think he's absolutely right on track here -- they're sending out 135 million cards right now to every address in America telling them how they should look at mail and how they should try to identify what might be suspicious, unknown and what to do with it in case they're afraid of it. I think that's all part of this education process.
GWEN IFILL: And Dr. Akhter, do you think that's enough or should mail at least for the short term be suspended, mail delivery?
DR. MOHAMMED AKHTER: Not at all. I think this is enough. We should continue to deliver the mail. I would though say that we need to take the next step which I believe the local health authority and the CDC is doing, which is to test the entire facility to make sure that we identify where these spores are and then to really look at the people who may need additional treatment or testing.
GWEN IFILL: Dr. Akhter and Mr. Coughlin, thank you very much.