Top U.S. officials say sending anthrax bacteria through the mail constitutes terrorism, and they can not rule out the possibility that suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden is behind the current anthrax cases in the United States.
Attorney General John Ashcroft says he is not able to say for sure that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network is responsible for the anthrax infections that have been discovered, but he says it is possible.
In a CBS television interview, Mr. Ashcroft said investigations are continuing into the cases of confirmed anthrax spores that were found in Florida, New York, and Nevada, as well as several other cases where mail with suspicious powder has tested negative for anthrax.
Mr. Ashcroft says there is no clear evidence linking reported anthrax cases with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. But he notes that Vice President Cheney has said they may be connected.
The attorney general says it is also possible that other individuals may be trying to take advantage of the current situation to send threatening mail as a hoax.
"I really want to make it clear that to send a threat of anthrax through the mail or to communicate a threat with anthrax is against the law, a threat regarding chemical or biological warfare," he said. "And the federal authorities, the Justice Department will prosecute vigorously and aggressively."
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, told ABC television Sunday the letters containing anthrax bacteria are a form of bioterrorism. "Well there is no question it is bioterrorism," he said. "It is a biological agent. It is terrorism. It is a crime. It is terrorism. But whether or not it is connected to al Qaida, we can not say conclusively."
Mr. Thompson says scientists at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta are analyzing the powders that were found to contain anthrax to determine if they came from the same source or from more than one individual. "Anybody that would do this is trying to create terror, is trying to create fear in the American public and that of course is not acceptable," he said.
Secretary Thompson says the U.S. government has stockpiled medicines and is prepared to deal with the anthrax cases.
Anthrax can not be passed from one infected person to another, but is contracted through the skin or when spores are inhaled. Officials say the topical version of the bacteria is easily treated and the inhaled form of the disease can be stopped when caught early.