Anthrax forces Supreme Court to move out

War on Terrorism: Law
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The Independent US

The anthrax alarm yesterday forced the US Supreme Court to meet outside its home on Capitol Hill for the first time in 66 years, after traces of the disease turned up at buildings connected with three more government departments.

The mailroom at the main Justice Department building in central Washington was closed because anthrax was found at a Maryland distribution centre that processes its mail. "Very minor" traces of the disease were also detected yesterday in the Justice Department mailroom itself, at the State Department, and at a building used by the Health and Human Services department.

Anthrax spores were found in a mail bundle at the US embassy in Peru, but were detected before they could do any harm.

By far the most vivid symbol of the disruption was the sight of the nine Supreme Court Justices gathering in the ceremonial courtroom of the District of Columbia courthouse on nearby Pennsylvania Avenue, rather than in their white neoclassical building, erected in 1935. Spores were detected last week at a warehouse housing court documents, and the precaution is expected to be repeated today.

The spread of the anthrax spores has raised fears that more than one infected letter has passed through Washington's mail system. A letter sent to the office of Tom Daschle, the Senate Majority Leader, caused the death of two postal workers at the city's Brentwood centre.

US authorities are increasingly frustrated at their failure to track the source of the attacks, which have killed three people and infected a further 11. Six have contracted the disease's most deadly inhaled version, others the more easily treatable cutaneous version. Critics say that if proper precautions had been taken at Brentwood, the two postal workers would not have died.

The blizzard of contradictory statements and ill-based warnings from different government departments has added greatly to the confusion.