- In repeated germ attacks in the early
1990s, an obscure Japanese cult tried to kill millions of people throughout
Tokyo, and, a cultist has now testified, at nearby U.S. bases where thousands
of service people and their families live.
- The biological strikes were not detected
at the time, and their significance has only recently become clear to Japanese
officials still investigating the cult's activities.
- As far as is known, there were no deaths.
But a New York Times examination of court testimony and confessions of
the cult's members, as well as interviews with Japanese and U.S. officials,
show that its germ attacks were far more numerous than previously known.
- Hoping to ignite an apocalyptic war,
the group sprayed pestilential microbes and germ toxins from rooftops and
convoys of trucks. Its members have testified that the targets included
the Japanese Legislature, the Imperial Palace, the surrounding city and
the U.S. base at Yokosuka, which is headquarters of the Navy's 7th Fleet.
- That little-noticed testimony marks the
first time a germ terrorist has ever told of assaulting any part of the
- For Washington officials trying to build
up the nation's defenses against germ terrorism, the drama has encouraging
aspects. It suggests that such attacks can be harder to carry out than
many had thought and that governments can find ways to increase the difficulties
- Most fundamentally, the officials say,
the cult's five-year effort to sow terror and death with lethal microbes
shows that germ warfare, no longer the sole province of rogue states, is
within reach of extremists with a scientific bent.
- Acknowledging such threats, President
Clinton announced a series of measures Friday to enhance germ defenses,
including the stockpiling of antibiotics and vaccines.
- Aum Shinrikyo burst into the headlines
in 1995 when it released nerve gas into Tokyo's subways, killing a dozen
people. Its biological work, meant to be thousands of times more devastating,
was mentioned only in passing in scattered reports.
- The Times inquiry shows that the cult
carried out at least nine biological attacks and that the strikes failed
largely because Aum never got its hands on germs of sufficient virulence.
It sought lethal bacteria from local sources and traveled to a northern
Japanese isle on a microbe hunting trip as well as to Africa, apparently
eager to obtain Ebola virus.
- The full extent of the cult's activities
may never be known. Japanese authorities knew nothing of the germ danger
until long after the attacks had occurred and key evidence had been destroyed.
Moreover, one top cultist with germ knowledge was killed.
- So, too, U.S. spy agencies had no idea
of Aum's preparations, and the Navy acknowledges that it was unaware of
the base attacks. U.S. Senate investigators who examined the cult in 1995
and 1996 found hints of just two Tokyo assaults.
- Today, Washington sees the cult's efforts
at biologic Armageddon as a wake-up call and a spur to curbing the free
exchange of microbes that has helped the world's scientists crush diseases
around the globe.
- Aum's failures are evidence that limiting
germ access can help thwart terrorists, the Times inquiry found.
- Washington was stunned in the late 1980s
and early 1990s when it realized that germ banks used by U.S. researchers
had inadvertently delivered toxic microbes to the military forces of Saddam
Hussein as well as to domestic terrorists.
- In recent years the government has begun
a quiet campaign to tighten up access to hazardous germs. So far, however,
it has had little success getting similar safeguards adopted by hundreds
of foreign germ repositories, including those in Japan.
- William C. Patrick III, an expert who
made U.S. biological weapons before President Nixon outlawed them nearly
three decades ago, said restricting germ commerce was essential for world
- A particular species of harmful microbe
might come in dozens or even hundreds of subvarieties, Patrick said. Only
one such strain might pose exceptional dangers of sickness and death.
- For would-be terrorists, he added, "getting
the most infectious and virulent culture for the seed stock is the greatest
- But, stressing the need for greater controls,
he said that hurdle was not insurmountable. "We've got to keep track
of where these cultures are going."
- The Doctors: Trading Germs to Fight Disease
- In ancient cities the human life span
was roughly 30 years. Today, in industrial nations, it is around 80. The
lengthening is due largely to the decline of infectious disease. History's
great killers -- plague, cholera, tuberculosis, smallpox and other diseases
-- were undone by the rise of sanitation and science.
- Microscopic foes were identified, grown
and shared widely among doctors and microbiologists, and the access that
many scientists had to the germs led to their defeat. Standardized germ
banks played a major role in helping scientists find public health improvements
and make vaccines and antibiotics.
- Today there are more than 1,500 microbe
banks around the world, and they work hard to maintain the purity and accessibility
of a million or so strains of disparate microorganisms, many deadly.
- The microbes are usually shipped in vials
smaller than a finger. Hospitals order human pathogens to check the accuracy
of diagnostic procedures, and companies use them to aid work on new medical
- Many nations have microbe banks. Typically
they are at universities, government labs and private companies. The World
Federation for Culture Collections, the largest such group, has some 400
members in 50 countries, including Bulgaria, Iran and Pakistan.
- Fifty-five federation members ship differing
strains of anthrax, some for a fee, some free. Anthrax normally afflicts
animals like cattle and sheep. But it can kill humans.
- This society of scientific altruists
was built on trust. For many decades, experts said, most microbes were
shipped to any applicant, regardless of country and usually without knowledge
of their ultimate use. Thus the United States in the 1980s authorized the
shipment of dozens of human pathogens to Iraq, as it had over the decades
to scores of other nations -- even, at times, to enemies.
- Such generosity, however, began to ebb
in the late 1980s as the threat of germ warfare grew. Microbe commerce,
long seen as humanitarian in nature, suddenly became a potential danger
- The Allies: Confronting a Time Bomb
- Hearing that Iran and Iraq would use
germ weapons in their war, U.S. policy makers cut off pathogen exports
to the combatants. The Commerce Department acted on Feb. 23, 1989. A ban
was declared on the shipment of dozens of pernicious microbes not only
to Iran and Iraq but also to Libya and Syria, which were also suspected
of trying to acquire germ weapons.
- "We knew we were sitting on a time
bomb," said a federal official who helped set the policy.
- Raising the issue internationally, the
United States asked its allies to impose analogous restrictions. But little
happened until the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when coalition members came to
fear that Baghdad was preparing attacks with germs that Washington had
put into Iraqi hands years earlier.
- Late in 1992 the Australia Group, an
informal body of more than 20 industrialized nations that share intelligence
on technologies useful for making weapons, called on its members to end
exports of scores of human pathogens to rogue states.
- But the call came in the form of recommendations,
not rules. The group's advice carried little or no weight with dozens of
nonmember states, many of which freely exported germs and saw multinational
controls as a conspiracy to keep them developmentally backward.
- In addition, there was a threat that
the belated patchwork of export controls missed entirely. Aimed at rogue
states, they did nothing to limit the sale of deadly germs within countries,
not even to suspicious groups or individuals.
- At first this gap was inconspicuous,
since most domestic incidents seemed minor.
- In 1984, for instance, a supply house
sold the Rajneeshees, an Oregon cult, a sample of Salmonella typhimurium,
which can cause acute diarrhea. The cult multiplied the germ and sprinkled
it on restaurant salad bars, hoping to sway an election by keeping voters
away. More than 750 people fell ill.
- Then, quite suddenly in the 1990s, germ
terrorism grew large enough to threaten not just individuals, but nations.
- The Cult: Girding for Armageddon
- When Aum Shinrikyo -- "Supreme Truth,"
preceded by the Buddhist mantra Om -- started shopping for weapons of mass
destruction, it first zeroed in on deadly germs, not chemicals. Germs were
seen as easier and cheaper to make into munitions, as well as far more
destructive -- efficiently lethal to thousands if not millions of people.
- Aum's leader was Shoko Asahara, who since
his arrest in May 1995 has denied wrongdoing despite his former devotees'
repeated claims to the contrary.
- Half-blind from birth, known for his
long beard, colorful robes and Rolls-Royce, the charismatic guru had by
all accounts preached the coming of an apocalyptic war from which a race
of superhumans -- his followers -- would rise. To speed the new order,
he planned to destroy the old one, assembling an energetic corps of young
scientists who worked hard to perfect weapons of mass destruction.
- After producing waves of devastation
and panic, the cult planned to take over Japan, then the world.
- Aum's biological arms chief was Seiichi
Endo. Born in 1960 and once a graduate student in biology at Kyoto University,
he had the title of health and welfare minister. In theory, his job was
simple. He was to find a few lethal germs, feed them special foods, grow
them to astronomical numbers and turn the resulting brew into a widely
dispersible material, preferably a fine mist or powder that could easily
penetrate human lungs.
- His first effort, authorities say, focused
on the botulism microbe, known as Clostridium botulinum, which produces
the strongest known poison against humans. When ingested, the toxin quickly
paralyzes muscles and lungs. It is far more deadly than any nerve gas --
except that it loses much of its potency when inhaled. And no one knows
what respiratory dose is lethal.
- For terrorists, the microbe is nonetheless
attractive since it is rather easily found in nature.
- In recent interviews, Japanese authorities
disclosed that Aum got its starter botulinum germs on the northern island
of Hokkaido near the Tokachi River, a relative wilderness where Endo had
studied as a young man.
- The collecting trip occurred in March
1990, Endo later said in a confession. His foray with three others occurred
weeks after voters had rejected 25 Aum members running for legislative
office. Among the losers was the guru himself, Asahara.
- Endo and his team multiplied the germs,
experts said. But they failed to kill anyone with them.
- One month after obtaining the microbes,
in April 1990, the cult sent a convoy of three trucks rumbling into the
streets of central Tokyo to spray poisonous mists, Shigeo Sugimoto, the
guru's chauffeur and one of the drivers that day, later testified in court.
He said the convoy then crisscrossed the wider Tokyo Bay region to attack
U.S. bases. It first moved south to the U.S. Navy installation at Yokohama,
then to the sprawling base at Yokosuka.
- Yokosuka, a top Navy outpost in the Pacific,
services fleets of ships, submarines and aircraft carriers and houses the
7th Fleet. During the 1980s, it was a political hot spot where Japanese
demonstrators protested the suspected presence of U.S. nuclear arms.
- Finally, Sugimoto said, the convoy traveled
to Narita International Airport, Japan's largest, about 40 miles northeast
- His testimony was briefly reported last
year by Asahi Shimbun, a leading Japanese daily. In an interview, a Japanese
official working on security issues said investigators see his testimony
as "highly reliable," even though to date they have no corroboration
of the attack.
- At all four sites, Sugimoto said, trucks
sprayed clouds of invisible mist.
- Depending on the dose, botulin poisoning
can take up to days to sicken and kill. So the cult watched and waited.
- No one got ill, Japanese and U.S. officials
said in recent interviews.
- So Endo went back to work at the cult's
Mount Fuji headquarters, seeking to refine his poisons.
- U.S. experts are unsure whether the botulinum
strain was simply weak or the toxins fickle, or both.
- "There's no consistency," Milton
Leitenberg, a biologist at the University of Maryland who studies germ
terrorism, said in an interview. "Even for pros, some batches kill,
- Hundreds of different strains of botulinum
are found in nature, and the potency of their toxins varies widely, experts
say. Type A toxin is the strongest. Even strains that make the same toxin
do so in differing amounts. The U.S. germ program, decades ago, seized
on the so-called Hall strain because it made huge quantities of the A toxin.
Experts say the exceptionally deadly strain is almost impossible to find.
- "It's rare," said Michael Goodnough,
a botulinum expert at the University of Wisconsin. "It's easily killed
- Desperate for results, Endo turned to
a new pathogen -- Bacillus anthracis, a top germ-warfare agent, which is
hardy and usually highly virulent. Its spores, which cause anthrax, can
live for centuries. And the death rate for untreated pulmonary anthrax
can be more than 90 percent.
- If nurtured and disseminated properly,
such germs cause waves of feverish, coughing death.
- To get anthrax, Japanese authorities
revealed, Endo turned to a cult member who had a medical license and could
obtain the germs without raising questions. They now suspect the microbes
came from Tsukuba University, which is part of a major science complex
northeast of Tokyo. In interviews, university officials denied knowing
of any such aid.
- The cult multiplied the starter culture
and girded for mass production at its eight-story building in eastern Tokyo.
The concrete monolith, with virtually no windows, was built by Aum members
so construction workers would know nothing of its interior.
- The surrounding neighborhood is mostly
residential. There is a small grocery store and a park where children play.
- Keiichi Tsuneishi, a science historian
at Kanagawa University who has studied germ terrorism, said an Aum cultist
told him that a main manufacturing tank at the Aum building was yards wide
and could hold about a ton of deadly anthrax fluid -- enough, in theory,
to wipe out cities and even nations.
- Preliminary work was speeding ahead when
the guru, seemingly impatient for genocide, ordered an anthrax attack,
Japanese officials said. It was late June 1993.
- Cult members, working on the roof of
the Aum building, pumped a slurry of liquid anthrax into a sprayer, ready
to create a cloud that would settle on the unsuspecting.
- But as with the botulinum attacks, no
one got sick.
- Eager to perfect the new weapon, cultists
tried again from the rooftop in July, according to Japanese authorities.
- Still, no death or pandemonium. Neighbors
did complain of a foul odor. The police were called in, but they went away
without investigating the Aum compound.
- Later that July, apparently in frustration,
Endo again used a truck to spray, only this time with anthrax, Japanese
authorities said, citing his confession as evidence.
- Sugimoto, the chauffeur, told a court
that he drove the truck around central Tokyo near the legislature to spread
a cloud of anthrax. This, too, had no deadly results.
- Still trying to disseminate the germ,
the cult dispatched its truck again that July into Tokyo's heart near the
Imperial Palace, Sugimoto testified and Japanese authorities confirmed.
- In interviews, Japanese authorities revealed
that the main impediment was deficiencies in the anthrax itself, saying
Endo reported that it turned out to be a vaccine strain -- in other words,
relatively harmless. Both U.S. and Japanese experts said that the anthrax,
whatever its exact form, was clearly not Vollum 1B -- one of the deadliest
of dozens of anthrax strains and the one often preferred for biological
- The anthrax flaw, Japanese officials
said, was compounded by clogged sprayers that limited mist production.
- The guru wanted results, so he switched
his main focus from germs to gas. A giant plant was built at the cult's
Mount Fuji headquarters, and in June 1994 cult members attacked the city
of Matsumoto with sarin, a deadly nerve agent. Seven people died, and more
than 150 were injured. Japanese authorities were uncertain what had caused
- Still fascinated by the potential of
germs, despite the problems the cult had had with them, the guru ordered
yet another effort to poison Tokyo, again with botulinum toxin, the cult's
first choice for germ weaponry. Only this time the strike would take place
in the subways, to concentrate the noxious mist. Japanese authorities said
it happened on March 15, 1995, in the station at Kasumigaseki, near the
main government ministries.
- This assault also failed, apparently
sabotaged by a repentant cult member.
- Finally, on March 20, five days after
the latest germ setback and five years after the cult had begun its biological
efforts, Asahara ordered a sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system. It
killed 12 people and injured thousands. This was the calamity that gave
the cult such notoriety and culminated in the arrest of many Aum leaders.
- In the aftermath of the arrests, Japanese
and U.S. officials found wide evidence that the cult had been trying to
expand its germ arsenal. Traveling to Zaire, ostensibly to lend medical
aid, cult members had even apparently tried to obtain the highly contagious
Ebola virus, which causes profuse bleeding and high fevers that are usually
- At the Mount Fuji headquarters, searchers
discovered two buildings for germ biology. Found among the stockpiles were
160 barrels of peptone, a potent germ food.
- Senate investigators obtained a 41-minute
video of one building's interior. It was a maze of lab gear, glassware
and guru photos. A high-tech incubator for growing germs was the size of
a towering refrigerator. Eerily, a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste lay
nearby, ready for some cultist's personal use.
- "The whole thing was scary,"
said John F. Sopko, who led the investigation for Sen. Sam Nunn.
- Authorities also found that the cult
had nearly finished building a four-story biological plant in Naganohara,
100 miles north of the Fuji site, for advanced germ production.
- Finally, U.S. officials said, there is
evidence that Aum was producing germs for Q fever, an arcane, incapacitating
disease that is highly infectious and often studied for use in germ warfare.
- Discovered in Australia, the microbe
can be obtained from cattle and sheep (Aum had a large Australian sheep
ranch) and grown in fertilized chicken eggs. U.S. officials disclosed that
eggs for germ production had been found at an Aum installation in Japan.
- Some analysts now believe that cult members,
given their sloppy lab practices, were accidentally infected by Q microbes.
- "My body is considerably damaged
now," the guru himself said in a video recorded days after the Tokyo
sarin attack. Looking weak, he said unidentified airplanes had sprayed
his Australian compound with Q fever.
- The facts of the case suggest that the
guru may have been among the cult's few germ victims. In biological warfare,
this kind of hazard is known as the boomerang effect.
- Endo, the biological chief, said through
his lawyer that he would not discuss the cult's efforts to develop germ
- Japanese authorities said they restricted
sales of some chemicals after the sarin subway assault but did nothing
about deadly germs. Their reasoning, which still mystifies U.S. experts
and some of their Japanese counterparts, seems to be that Aum's germs hurt
no one, while its chemicals killed people.
- "Because there was no damage from
germs, there are no specific restrictions or laws," said a Japanese
official working on security issues, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
- Tsuneishi of Kanagawa University, the
terrorism expert, lamented the lack of action.
- "Control in universities is still
very weak," he said. "So it's a very serious problem."
- Two months after Aum's Tokyo killings,
Larry Wayne Harris, an Army veteran in Ohio with a history of hate-group
affiliations, managed to buy plague bacteria from an U.S. germ bank by
mail, paying $100 apiece for three vials. He succeeded simply by lying
about his credentials.
- Harris was eventually arrested after
his eager calls to the germ bank raised suspicions that something was amiss.
In November 1995, he pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud -- the worst
crime prosecutors could come up with under existing law.
- In the following months, however, the
twin blows of Aum and Harris led Congress to rewrite the nation's terrorism
- The Lawmakers: Blocking Deadly Leaks
- It's frightening to think that just about
anybody with a 32-cent stamp and a little chutzpah could get a hold of
any number of potentially dangerous infectious substances," Rep. Edward
Markey, D-Mass., told a Senate Judiciary hearing in March 1996.
- He went on to praise Nunn's investigation
of Aum, saying it documented the cult's enthusiasm for deadly germs.
- Aum, Markey stressed, quoting the Senate
report, was "a clear danger" not just to Japan but to the United
States, given its anti-American teachings.
- In a mood of bipartisan urgency, Congress
soon passed legislation that criminalized the threatened use of pestilential
germs and imposed tough new rules on their transfer. It called for a system
of registration and inspection to block leaks from an estimated 200 U.S.
germ banks and labs that trade in human pathogens.
- The bill was signed into law on April
24, 1996. Some bacteriologists criticized it for increasing bureaucratic
- But scientists at the world's largest
germ bank, the American Type Culture Collection, based in Manassas, Va.,
found the new precautions so important that they pushed for global adoption.
- In an interview, Dr. Raymond H. Cypess,
president of the germ bank, said he called on the World Federation for
Culture Collections, meeting in August 1996 in the Netherlands, to back
rules similar to the U.S. rules.
- His recommendation was spelled out in
a proposed resolution, a private document that he showed to a reporter.
- "They ignored it," Cypess said.
"The international community has failed to address this issue in a
- Today, the U.S. safeguards are just going
into effect as Congress and the administration belatedly find money for
- And experts say that, globally, there
is still no parallel effort to limit germ commerce.
- But John S. MacKenzie, an Australian
biologist at the University of Queensland, which pioneered the global networking
of germ banks, predicted that other states and groups would ultimately
adopt U.S.-style curbs. He said they were simply slow in reacting to the
developing threat of germ terror, as illustrated by Aum.
- "There's more and more reason to
tighten up," MacKenzie said. "Personally, what bioterrorism can
do scares me silly."
- Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
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