Exclusive: The Intern Who Opened an Anthrax Letter

October 10, 2011

FRONTLINE’s season premiere, The Anthrax Files, airs tomorrow night, Oct. 11 at 9 pm. Check your local listings or watch it online.

For years, she hid her strange place in American history. “I didn’t want to be known as Grant Leslie, the girl who got anthrax.”

On Oct. 15, 2001, Senate intern Grant Leslie opened a letter addressed to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). White powder poured onto her lap, her shoes and the floor. Eventually, the entire building would have to be shut down. Leslie and her colleagues were given Cipro and vaccinated. It would be the most high-profile of the series of biological attacks that terrorized the country.

Leslie spoke about the experience for the first time to FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore.

It started when, on the Friday before the attacks, a hand-delivered gift to Senator Daschle’s office sparked a scare.

The scare rattled the office, and held up mail delivery that Friday afternoon. When Leslie and fellow staffers returned to the office Monday, they had twice as much mail to open. Many of the staffers worked at a long, narrow mail table, but because it was so crowded, Leslie sat in a chair in the middle of the room with a pile of mail on her lap.

In the mail pile, one particular envelope got her attention.

Leslie and her colleagues were quickly tested. She and others who tested positive for spores were put on Cipro. In the weeks following the attacks, Daschle staffers met every day with doctors who checked on their physical and mental health.

Leslie didn’t have much confidence in the investigation into the attacks. Like her own medical situation, the attacks were unprecedented.

“I just sort of felt like nothing during this entire process was really under control,” she says.

Leslie returned to work the day after the attack and continued her career on Capitol Hill, working on agriculture policy in the Senate and at the Department of Agriculture. She is now vice president at The Glover Park Group, a D.C. consulting firm. Enough time has passed that she now feels comfortable speaking publicly: “I think my colleagues know me for who I am now versus the fact that I opened a letter full of anthrax.”

Ten years later, she says she is “incredibly lucky” to have not experienced any long-term side effects or problems from inhaling the anthrax or from taking Cipro or the vaccine.

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