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Questions Arise About Handling of Anthrax Scare - 2001-10-27

Traces of anthrax were discovered at a remote postal facility for the U.S. Supreme Court Friday, the latest in a series of anthrax-by-mail attacks targeting government agencies and media outlets. Bush administration officials say they are working hard to find the source of the anthrax powder. But there has been criticism of the way the administration has handled the anthrax scare.

The administration's homeland security director, Tom Ridge, sought to reassure local officials from the around the country meeting in Washington Friday that the anthrax threat is under control. "We are under attack from a different kind of enemy who is using different kinds of weapons, weapons designed to [cause] fear and weapons designed to panic and disrupt," he said. "We are not going to let them get away with that. We'll find them, we'll get them, and then working with you over the months and years ahead, we'll develop an even stronger prevention mechanism and an even stronger response mechanism."

At the White House, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters that the anthrax found last week in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was not necessarily the work of a foreign government as some experts have speculated. He said the lethal dose of anthrax contained in the letter could just as easily have been produced by a microbiologist in a sophisticated laboratory.

Meanwhile, postal workers around the country are growing increasingly concerned about the spread of anthrax through the mail. Postal union officials in New York and Miami were urging that some facilities be closed so that both workers and buildings could be tested for anthrax. Judy Johnson, a postal union official in Miami, said, "If you delay our testing, we are as good as dead, which has already been proven in Washington."

While the Bush administration's foreign policy team has been getting generally high marks for its handling of the war on terrorism, the administration's approach on dealing with anthrax has gotten mixed reviews.

Administration officials have at times given conflicting statements about the anthrax mailings and have been criticized for not moving sooner to protect postal workers from possible exposure. As commentator Joseph From said on this week's "Issues in the News" program here on VOA, "The scare is obviously serious. A lot of people have been panicked by it, particularly people in the post office. And the Bush administration has stumbled on this and quite badly. There has been a lack of coordination. We have had conflicting stories from the FBI, from the health authorities."

Even some experts on bio-terrorism admit they were taken by surprise by the anthrax attacks. C.J. Peters is with the Center for Biodefense at the University of Texas. Interviewed on NBC television, he said, "None of us believed that you would have such a lethal powder that would go out in an envelope. We always thought that that would be disseminated in an air conditioning system or as a release into the environment, which I think makes an important point. When you think you know what the terrorists are going to do, you are making a big mistake."

But Mr. Peters also believes that the administration's response to the anthrax scare has been measured and reasonable. "I think we are better off than we were three or four years ago," he said, "but it is very difficult to prepare for something like this. The massive logistical problem of treating people with antibiotics if there were thousands of people exposed is a tremendous problem."

Despite concerns about the administration's handling of the anthrax scare, a new poll indicates that more than three in five Americans still have confidence that the government has taken adequate steps to protect the public from biological terrorism.