WASHINGTON – The anthrax spores that killed two Washington postal workers have already offered up at least one critical clue, Sen. Bill Frist said: They were professionally made, and they were made to kill.
Frist's disclosure came even as the anthrax crisis began spreading, with three more Washington-area people falling ill and the surgeon general admitting that the government should have done more, sooner.
"More than a casual scientist" is masterminding the death-by-mail attacks that have already killed three and put the entire country on edge, Frist, a Republican heart surgeon from Tennessee said. The person who sent them had an "intent to kill," the senator told The Associated Press, milling the powder to a size that was meant to lodge in a person's lungs, multiply and murder.
Late Wednesday, investigators said they had discovered anthrax in a new location in the Hart Senate office building.
Capitol Police Lt. Dan Nichols said anthrax was found on a first-floor freight elevator bank in the Hart building's southwest quadrant. The anthrax-laden letter was opened in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, which is on the fifth and sixth floors of that same building but in its southeast quadrant.
Nichols said investigators would be trying to determine how the anthrax reached the elevator bank, saying they will try to track the possible path of Daschle's mail.
Also Wednesday, three additional cases of suspected inhalation anthrax were announced in the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, and Surgeon General David Satcher bluntly admitted "we were wrong" not to respond more aggressively to tainted mail in the nation's capital.
"This is new for us. We've never been through a bioterrorist attack before," Satcher said on NBC. "I'm worried that we're being attacked and we don't fully understand the attack."
Satcher said officials were considering whether to vaccinate postal employees in high risk areas, and he said it may be necessary to tap the inactive reserves of the public health service commissioned corps — doctors and other health care professionals in private life — if the attacks continue.
On the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Postal Service was distributing masks and gloves for its workers. New equipment was on order to irradiate the mail to make it safer.
"We are learning as we go," said Postmaster General John Potter, who told interviewers in a round of network appearances that "there are no guarantees that the mail is safe."
"That's why we're asking people to handle mail very carefully," Potter said. "People have to be aware of everything in their day-to-day life, and certainly, mail in our system is threatened right now."
Mike Hall, a spokesman for the Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md., disclosed the three newest cases of suspected inhalation anthrax. He said one man and two women had been admitted overnight, and they had a connection to the central Washington, D.C., mail facility where others have become infected.
"They came in with flu-like symptoms, primarily respiratory, and the fact that they were in the 'hot zone' was the overriding factor in why we began treatment and testing," he said.
The new cases were all linked to the letter addressed to Daschle that made its way through mail facilities from Hamilton Township, N.J., to Capitol Hill.
The comments by Satcher and Potter indicated that officials recognized they were acting on faulty assumptions when they responded to the letter opened in Daschle's office.
Investigators traced the mail backward, then stopped when they found no evidence of anthrax at a congressional mail intake facility. But Saturday's diagnosis of a postal worker from a center that had processed the Daschle letter signaled that the anthrax had somehow escaped taped mail and spread through the air.
"We did what we thought was the right thing at the time," said Satcher. We are learning together and we are being attacked."
Inhalation anthrax has killed three people and infected as many as 10 others along the East Coast. In addition, six people have been diagnosed around the country with the less dangerous skin form of the disease.
Anthrax has surfaced in Boca Raton, Fla., New York City, and at postal facilities in the Washington and Trenton, N.J., areas.
Officials on Wednesday continued to draw a rhetorical link — but produced no evidence — connecting the anthrax outbreak to the September 11 terrorist attacks.
"On Sept. 11, this great land came under attack, and is still under attack as we speak," President Bush told Maryland business leaders.
"Both series of actions are motivated by evil and hate. Both series of actions are meant to disrupt Americans' way of life. Both series of actions are an attack on our homeland. And both series of actions will not stand."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said roughly 200 employees were taking antibiotics as a precaution following Tuesday's discovery of anthrax at a remote postal facility that handles mail addressed to the White House. He said no one has tested positive for exposure.
Fleischer said the roster of workers taking antibiotics included 50 people who work in the mailroom in a building next door to the White House, and 150 more who work in or have visited the remote mail facility a few miles away. He declined to say whether the president had been tested, or was taking antibiotics as a precaution.
"These (anthrax) attacks were clearly meant to terrorize a country already on the edge," FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said.
With the demand for anti-anthrax drugs growing, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said a tentative deal with Bayer Corp. to lower the price of Cipro had faltered but a new one was in the works. "Hopefully we'll reach an agreement this afternoon," said Thompson, who said on Tuesday he would insist on a price of less than $1 per pill.
Thousands of postal workers in New York, New Jersey and the nation's capital were already taking medication as a precaution against a disease so rare that the last occurrence in the United States was more than two decades ago.
One Florida victim, Ernesto Blanco, was released late Tuesday after a 23-day stay in the hospital. "He looks good, he's mobile, he's talking," said his stepdaughter, Maria Orth. "He seems to have some energy."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.