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Pathogens, nose swabs and flip phones: What work was like during anthrax

‘For everybody on the Hill, it was pretty damn real,’ says one former staffer

During the anthrax attacks of 2001, Oregon Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, center, visits the makeshift East Front office of New York Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, here using the phone, in October 2001. Ackerman’s Rayburn office was closed for anthrax testing.
During the anthrax attacks of 2001, Oregon Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, center, visits the makeshift East Front office of New York Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, here using the phone, in October 2001. Ackerman’s Rayburn office was closed for anthrax testing. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After mail laced with anthrax showed up on Capitol Hill in 2001, things started to feel different.

“You picked it up and it was all crinkly and crispy,” says Jim Manley of the letters he got after that, treated to kill any spores. 

Manley remembers the uncertainty of that time, when he worked as an aide for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

“It really was a surreal moment, right up there with the weirdest stuff I ever saw in 21 years in the Senate,” he says. “There was a lot of fear, a lot of paranoia.”

It’s a feeling that many can relate to now, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to reshape workplaces around the country. Fear of an airborne pathogen became the norm, along with rounds of nasal swab testing and staffers going remote.

Some who went through the anthrax crisis, though, say the comparison doesn’t quite hold up. During the COVID-19 pandemic, recriminations have flown on the Hill as lawmakers fight over mask-wearing, social distancing and how to keep each other safe. While partisanship is hardly a new tradition in Washington, rarely has it come with so many consequences for the logistics of daily life at the Capitol. 

During the chaotic weeks that began in October 2001, staffers recall both panic and a sense of unity.

“There were probably some people denying that it was real,” Manley says. “But for everybody on the Hill, it was pretty damn real.”

A worker vomits as he is removed from his hazmat suit on South Capitol Street after sweeping House office buildings for anthrax. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A monthslong closure

On Oct. 15, 2001, white powder spilled out of a letter supposedly from a fourth-grade class in New Jersey, landing on an intern in Tom Daschle’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building. 

“I was wearing a dark gray skirt and black shoes, and you could see it — just vividly — on the dark colors,” the intern who opened the envelope, Grant Leslie, told PBS’ “Frontline” in 2011. 

It was just weeks after 9/11, and everyone was on high alert. Letters containing anthrax had already arrived at a couple of news organizations, and one man in Florida had died. Now the threat had arrived at the Capitol.

As officials kept learning about the nature of the attacks, the prognosis and guidance kept changing. At first, nothing much was clear, including what kind of anthrax the letter addressed to Daschle contained (it turned out to be airborne) and who sent it (the FBI’s eventual suspect, an Army biodefense expert, would die by suicide years later).

Staffers who usually worked in Hart were scattered as crews began the cleanup. Other parts of the Capitol complex remained open in the weeks ahead, punctuated by interruptions and evacuations.

People lined up to be tested for exposure to the spores, and thousands took the powerful antibiotic Ciprofloxacin, or Cipro, which caused lasting damage in at least one staffer, who had to walk with a cane after the drug ate away at his Achilles tendons. 

The scramble in some ways resembled the early days of the current pandemic, says Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. 

“The looming question that Washington was feeling wasn’t, ‘When am I going to get back into my office?’ It was, ‘Is there going to be a chemical attack?’” he says. 

Fitch, who had just left his job on the Hill, was making the transition to the foundation but was still very much in and around the Capitol complex.

Employees at one point got word that taping windows shut in an attack could offer protection, making duct tape an essential work item. 

“I walked around for months with duct tape in my bag, and so did most people who went on Capitol Hill,” Fitch says.

For staffers of lawmakers locked in battles that included negotiations over the farm bill and appropriations, the ongoing disruptions felt like a legislative disadvantage, says Paul Bock, then chief of staff for Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl. 

Some worked from home, but remote work wasn’t so easy at the turn of the century. Others found themselves shoehorned into a tiny basement space with computers and fax machines in another Senate office building, which Bock compares to a “very basic, low-budget hotel room.”

While his boss spent a lot of time working in the Senate Dining Room, Bock held staff meetings in all sorts of impromptu locations, including coffee shops.  

No one had a BlackBerry or iPhone yet, and cell reception in his workspace was practically nonexistent.  

“I could either check my emails, or I could be outside and be on my cellphone,” says Bock, now a lobbyist. “But I couldn’t do both at the same time.”

For 97 days, he switched between the two, responding to emails on his computer before walking outside to a bench in front of the Capitol. There, he waded through voicemails, occasionally pulling a spare battery from his suit jacket pocket to give his flip phone more juice.

The Hart Building remained closed for three months as the Environmental Protection Agency cleaned the site, and other rolling closures across the campus kept people on edge, especially after a second anthrax-laced letter was intercepted, this one addressed to Sen. Patrick Leahy

People stand in line at the Library of Congress building at East Capitol and Sixth streets, waiting to be tested for anthrax. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Items left behind

By the time the U.S. anthrax attacks ended, five people had died. While none worked on-site at the Capitol, two were postal workers at the Brentwood mail processing center in Washington.

Cleaning up the damage was a slow and painful process, and left a legacy behind.

For staffers returning to hastily abandoned offices, it meant more than recovering their purses, documents and half-consumed coffee cups that now seemed like low-grade biohazards in their own right. 

It meant more than uncovering horrific conditions in office refrigerators, or dusty floors covered with the leaves of dried-up office plants. 

Anthrax permanently changed security procedures on the Hill, including how Congress gets its mail. Now letters for the House and Senate are processed in off-site facilities and can take anywhere from 10 to 14 days to reach their destination.

If there’s a lesson here for navigating the coronavirus pandemic, it isn’t yet clear. For Bock, the common thread is how quickly and completely norms can change.

“I don’t think in March people imagined that we would still be in this series of lockdowns, you know, seven or eight months later,” he says.

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