Senate buildings reopened before sweeps completed
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer Thursday reopened the Russell and Hart Senate office buildings despite the fact that at least four members' offices and the Senate library housed in the Russell building had not been swept for ricin contamination by emergency response crews, Senate aides said, prompting a new round of criticism of the handling of the incident.
Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., sent the majority of his staff home following the reopening of the Russell Senate Office Building Thursday after staffers arrived to find their mailroom untouched. "Nothing had been moved," said a spokeswoman for Dayton. "Our mailroom literally had boxes of mail in it."
According to the spokeswoman, Dayton placed a call to the Capitol Police, who informed the senator that four other rooms in Russell had been overlooked in the massive sweep operation led by the Capitol Police in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI, 125 Marines and members of the Coast Guard.
According to the Senate's Web site, there are 36 member offices in the Russell building and 50 in the Hart building, as well as several committee rooms, restaurants and other facilities. Thousands of employees have been displaced by the closure of the three buildings this week.
The Russell building was reopened noon Thursday, Hart was reopened later that afternoon, and Dirksen remains scheduled to open Monday.
Capitol Hill sources said at least part of the reason some of the offices were not checked was that Capitol Police do not possess a complete set of keys -- which also slowed their sweep of the Capitol Wednesday.
However, at least one aide familiar with the situation indicated Thursday that clean-up crews might have simply "missed" some offices as they made their way through the Russell building.
"It's a little disturbing," said the spokeswoman. "We're all a little upset about it." The episode has raised fears among Hill staffers that the clean-up operation following the ricin toxin discovery in Frist's personal office is moving too fast.
Reporters questioned Gainer Thursday on the expedited schedule for the building reopenings, in contrast to the October 2001 anthrax scare in the office of then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., which closed the Hart Senate building for several months.
"The threat is completely different," said Gainer, "so the response is different."
According to information posted on Frist's Web site, there are no known deaths attributed to inhaled ricin, a poisonous toxin, whereas anthrax, an acute infectious disease, has known fatalities.
Throughout the week, Frist went to great pains to stress that while the Senate would continue to operate normally, the safety of the members, staff and other employees was paramount.
For instance, in a Blackberry message sent to GOP members and Daschle Tuesday, Frist noted: "Do remember that ricin is a deadly poison and that this is criminal activity directed against the Senate body. Safety of the people who work with us is first and foremost. Less is known about ricin than anthrax. Yet we know it is deadly. Stay calm and patient as much as possible."
Frist and Daschle have also praised the work Gainer and Sergeant at Arms Bill Pickle have done in handling the investigation, as well as the immediate response to the discovery of the ricin powder.
But criticism of how Pickle and Gainer have handled the issue has continued to grow throughout the week, with lawmakers and staff alike expressing reservations about the response system.
For instance, numerous aides this week have criticized the fact that the Senate's emergency announcement system was not used or did not function.
Aides argued that once it was determined late Monday evening that the powder found in Frist's office was likely ricin, and emergency crews began hosing down staff working near the contaminated area, the rest of the Senate should have been evacuated or warned to avoid the fourth floor because of the contamination.
A source in Frist's office said any decision to use the emergency announcement system would have been made by either Gainer or someone else at the Capitol Police. Efforts to obtain comment from Gainer's office were unsuccessful at presstime.
Aides and lawmakers also have complained about the fact that offices were not warned of even a potential contamination threat until four hours after the powder was discovered. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., is said to have raised these concerns with Pickle when he met with Democrats during their weekly caucus lunch, although it is still unclear whether a change in procedure might ultimately be made.
The discovery of mail in the Russell office building also has prompted concerns about the timing of the opening of the offices, with many aides arguing it appears the decision by Frist, Gainer and Pickle to open offices this week may have been rushed. "I don't understand why the buildings were opened so quickly," said a Democratic staffer, "Everything was working fine out of the Capitol and there were no problems [keeping] with the agenda."
"Maybe we should be a little more cautious than this," said another Democratic staffer: "We need to have a better system in place than 19-year-old interns opening our mail."