Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "John Kerry: On a roll," Feb. 14, 2004

POLITICS Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last week received the backing of the 1.3 millionÐmember American Federation of Teachers. The big union endorsement arrived the morning after he won five out of seven states on Feb. 3 in his quest to earn the Democratic nomination for president (cover story, page 18). The four-term senator cemented his front-runner status by continuing to take huge majorities of voters for whom defeat of President Bush is the No. 1 priority.

The two runners-up, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, planned to sit out Feb. 7 contests in Michigan and Washington, and concentrate on Southern primaries on Feb. 10. Early front-runner Howard Dean is saving his dwindling bank account for TV commercials in Wisconsin, which holds its primary on Feb. 17.

RICIN THREAT Around 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 2, the telephone alert system in the Dirksen Senate building rang. This time it wasn't a heads-up on a floor vote. Capitol Police were calling to warn staffers to steer clear of the fourth floor. A mysterious white powder had appeared on a letter-opening machine in an office of Majority Leader Bill Frist's.

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Initial tests showed the powder contained the deadly toxin ricin. Sixteen staffers from the fourth floor were decontaminated immediately. A dozen of them were from Sen. Jim Jeffords's (I-Vt.) neighboring office. They had to strip down and take showers, and weren't allowed home until 2 a.m. the next morning. "I think they were just being careful," said Diane Derby, Mr. Jeffords's press secretary. "So many of our staffers had been through the anthrax scare in 2001."

IRAQ WEAPONS Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld broke the Bush administration's official silence on Capitol Hill with a feisty defense of the Iraq war before the Senate Armed Services Committee. For weeks, the views of David Kay-the weapons-of-mass-destruction hunter who had quit his post on the belief that WMDs would not be found in Iraq-went unchallenged among congressional committees.

Mr. Rumsfeld allowed the possibility that officials fearful of telling Saddam the truth may have "tricked" him into believing the weapons programs were on schedule. He said the weapons may have moved to a third country, may have been destroyed prior to the war, or may have been dispersed throughout the country and hidden. Mr. Rumsfeld pointed out that it took 10 months to find Saddam and that the hole in which he was hiding "was big enough to hold biological weapons to kill thousands." He added: "Such objects, once buried, can stay buried."

INTELLIGENCE PROBE Just as President Bush agreed to a panel to probe prewar intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, U.S. forces announced they had discovered a seven-pound block of cyanide salt in Baghdad. The potentially lethal compound was in what was believed to be a safe house for Abu Musab Zarqawi, a terror suspect with ties to northern Iraq's outlawed Ansar al-Islam and to al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his presentation to the UN Security Council one year ago, highlighted Mr. Zarqawi's work as a poison specialist.

In Iraq, opposition leaders have long believed Mr. Zarqawi to be a key threat. A Palestinian born in Jordan who fought in Afghanistan a decade ago, he developed strong ties to Saddam Hussein's intelligence network and established his terror base in the mountains of northern Iraq. From there the group carried out attacks on Kurdish political leaders. U.S. officials believe he is still in the country and has reconstituted Ansar al-Islam in small, disparate cells after U.S. forces in the opening days of war blew up its base, which included a poison factory.

Much available intelligence on Iraqi-based terrorists has come from Kurdish leaders, who found themselves the target of Iraq's biggest terror attack in more than six months. More than 100 were killed and 300 wounded when twin bombs exploded in Irbil on Feb. 1. The blast killed five prominent Kurdish leaders and staunch U.S. allies, including senior official Sami Abdul Rahman (story, p. 24).

IMMIGRATION UPDATE After a three-year fight, an Iranian convert to Christianity named "Nancy" has succeeded in gaining residency from Canadian authorities ("Border patrol," WORLD, Nov. 23, 2002). An immigration review panel questioned her conversion, despite supporting evidence from local pastors and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, putting Nancy at risk of deportation to Iran, where she could have faced the death penalty for converting from Islam. Her case was complicated by new U.S.-Canada immigration accords designed to increase scrutiny of asylum cases post-9/11. "She may be the only person ever succeeding at this level ... truly a miracle of God," said Harold Ristau, her pastor in Montreal.

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