26 May 1998
Source: Hardcopy The New York Times, May 26, 1998, pp. A1, A10
This article was reported by Sheryl WuDunn, Judith Miller
and William J. Broad and was written by Mr. Broad.
Diseases that a Japanese cult tried to unleash on Tokyo in the early 1990's:
|ATTACKS Germs sprayed from rooftops and trucks in central Tokyo.||ATTACKS Toxins sprayed from trucks driving across Tokyo region.||ATTACKS None known; germ in development.|
|EXPECTED RESULTS High fever, labored breathing, rapid pulse, shock and death in most cases.||EXPECTED RESULTS Fatigue, nausea, headache, cramps, giddiness, respiratory paralysis and, in high doses, death.||EXPECTED RESULTS Sudden fever, headache, chills, weakness, profuse perspiration; seldom fatal.|
In repeated germ attacks in the early 1990's, an obscure Japanese cult tried to kill millions of people throughout Tokyo and, a cultist has now testified, at nearby American 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 American 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 said that the targets included the Diet, or legislature, the Imperial Palace; the surrounding city, and the American base at Yokosuka, which is headquarters of the Navy's Seventh Fleet.
That little-noticed testimony marks the first time a germ terrorist has ever told of assaulting any part of the United States Government.
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 often portrayed and that governments can find ways to increase the difficulties even more.
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 the nation's 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, despite great effort. It sought lethal bacteria from local sources and traveled on microbe-hunting trips to a northern Japanese isle as well as to Africa, apparently eager to obtain the dreaded 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, American spy agencies had no idea of Aum's elaborate preparations for germ warfare, and the Navy acknowledges that it was unaware of the attacks on the base. United States 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 1980's and early 1990's when it realized that germ banks used by American 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 3d, an expert who made American biological weapons before President Nixon outlawed them nearly three decades ago, said restricting germ commerce was essential for world safety.
A particular species of harmful microbe might come in dozens or even hundreds of sub-varieties, Mr. 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 hurdle."
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."
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 others--were undone by the rise of sanitation and science.
Microscopic foes were identified, grown and shared widely among doctors and microbiologists, leading to their defeat. Standardized germ banks played a major role in helping scientists find public health improvements and make vaccines and antibiotics.
Today more than 1,500 microbe banks around the world work hard to maintain the purity and accessibility of a million or so strains of 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 treatments.
Many nations have microbe banks. Typically they are at universities, government labs and private companies. The World Federation for Culture Collections, the largest, 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 1980's 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.
However, such generosity began to ebb in the late 1980's. Microbe commerce, long seen as humanitarian in nature, suddenly became a potential danger as well.
Fearing that Iran and Iraq would use germ weapons in their war, American 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 weapons technologies, called on its members to end exports of scores of pathogens to rogue states.
But the call came in the form of recommendations, not rules. And 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 1990's, germ terrorism grew large enough to threaten not just individuals, but nations.
When Aum Shinrikyo--the Buddhist mantra Om followed by Supreme Truth--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 young scientists who worked 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 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 Mr. Endo had studied as a young man.
The collecting trip occurred in March 1990, Mr. 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, Mr. Asahara.
Mr. Endo and his team multiplied the germs, experts said. But at murder, they failed.
One month after obtaining the microbes, in April 1990, the cult sent three trucks rumbling into the streets of central Tokyo to spray poisonous mists, Shigeo Sugimoto, the guru's chauffeur and a driver that day, testified in court. He said the convoy then crisscrossed the wider Tokyo Bay region to attack American bases. It first moved south to the American Navy installation at Yokohama, then to the base at Yokosuka.
A top Navy outpost in the Pacific, Yokosuka services fleets of ships, submarines and aircraft carriers and houses the Seventh Fleet. During the 1980's, it was a hot spot where Japanese protested the suspected presence of American nuclear arms.
Finally, Mr. Sugimoto said, the convoy traveled to Narita airport, Japan's largest, about 40 miles northeast of Tokyo.
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 the statement was seen as "highly reliable," even though to date it has not been corroborated.
At all four sites, Mr. Sugimoto said, trucks sprayed clouds of invisible mist.
Depending on the dose, botulin poisoning can take up to days to sicken and kill. The cult watched and waited.
No one got ill, Japanese and American officials said in recent interviews.
So Mr. Endo went back to work at the cult's Mount Fuji headquarters, seeking to refine his poisons.
American experts are unsure whether the botulinum strain was simply weak or the toxins fickle, or both.
"There's no consistency," Milton Leitenberg, a University of Maryland biologist, said in an interview. "Even for pros, some batches kill, others don't."
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 American 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 C. Goodnough, a botulinum expert at the University of Wisconsin. "It's easily killed off."
Desperate for results, Mr. Endo turned to a new pathogen--Bacillus anthracis, a top germ-warfare agent. 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 feverish, coughing death.
Japanese authorities disclosed that Mr. Endo asked a cult member who had a medical license to obtain the anthrax without raising questions. They now suspect that the microbes came from Tsukuba University, 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, again, 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 went away without investigating the Aum compound.
Later that July, apparently in frustration, Mr. Endo again used a truck to spray, only this time with anthrax, Japanese authorities said, citing his confession as evidence.
Mr. 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, was in vain.
Still trying to disseminate the germ, the cult dispatched its truck again that July into Tokyo's heart near the Imperial Palace, Mr. Sugimoto testified and Japanese authorities confirmed. Again, nothing.
Japanese authorities disclosed that the main impediment was deficiencies in the anthrax itself, saying Mr. Endo reported that it turned out to be a relatively harmless vaccine strain. American and Japanese experts said that the anthrax, whatever its exact form, was clearly not Vollum 1B--one of the deadliest of dozens of strains and the one often preferred for biological warfare.
The anthrax flaw, Japanese officials said, was compounded by clogged sprayers that limited mist production.
The guru wanted results. He switched his main focus from germs to gas. A plant was built at the cult's Mount Fuji headquarters, and in June 1994 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 the disaster.
Still fascinated by the potential of germs despite the history of problems, 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.
But this assault also failed, apparently sabotaged by a repentant cult member.
Finally, on March 20, five years after the cult had begun its biological efforts, Mr. 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 Tokyo today, Reuters reported, one of five cult members involved in the sarin attack, Ikuo Hayashi, received a life sentence. It was the first sentencing in the case.
After the attack, Japanese and American officials found considerable evidence that the cult had been trying to expand its germ arsenal. Traveling to Zaire ostensibly to lend medical aid, cult members had apparently tried to obtain Ebola virus, which causes profuse bleeding and is usually fatal.
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 Senator Sam Nunn's inquiry.
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, American 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. American officials disclosed that eggs for germ production had been found at an Aum site 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 said in a video recorded days after the Tokyo sarin attack. Looking weak, he said unidentified planes 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.
Mr. Endo, the biological chief, said through his lawyer that he would not discuss the cult's efforts to develop germ weapons.
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 American and some Japanese experts, seems to be that Aum's germs hurt no one while its chemicals killed plenty.
"Because there was no damage from germs, there are no specific restrictions or laws," said a Japanese official working on security issues, who requested anonymity.
Dr. Tsuneishi, 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 American germ bank by mail, paying $10 apiece for three vials. He succeeded simply by lying about his credentials.
Mr. Harris was arrested after his calls to the germ bank raised suspicions. In November 1995, he pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud--the worst crime possible under existing law. In the following months, however, the twin blows of Aum and Mr. Harris led Congress to rewrite terrorism laws.
"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," Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, told a Senate Judiciary hearing in March 1996.
He went on to praise Senator Nunn's investigation of Aum, saying it documented the cult's enthusiasm for deadly germs.
Aum, Mr. Markey stressed, quoting the Senate report, was "a clear danger" not just to Japan but also to the United States, given its anti-American teachings.
In a mood of urgency, Congress soon passed legislation that criminalized the threatened use of pestilential germs and imposed tough rules on their transfer. It called for a system of registration and inspection to block leaks from an estimated 200 American 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 red tape.
But the world's largest germ bank, the American Type Culture Collection, in Manassas, Va., found the new precautions so important that it 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 American ones.
His recommendation was spelled out in a proposed resolution he showed to a reporter.
"They ignored it," Dr. Cypess said. "The international community has failed to address this issue in a meaningful way."
Today, the American safeguards are just, going into effect as authorities belatedly find money for their implementation.
And experts say that, globally, there is still no parallel effort to limit germ commerce.
But John S. MacKenzie, a biologist at the University of Queensland, which developed the global networking of germ banks, predicted that others would adopt such curbs. He said they were simply slow in reacting.
"There's more and more reason to tighten up," Dr. MacKenzie said. "Personally, what bioterrorism can do scares me silly."
[Two photos] The cult's guru, Shoko Asahara, left, planned to take over Japan, then the world. His biological weapons chief, Seiichi Endo, refined toxin cocktails for nine failed attacks.
[Photo] At Aum Shinrikyo's base near Mount Fuji, authorities found germ food and a high-tech incubator. Eerily, amid the dangerous supplies were a toothbrush and toothpaste.
[Small maps of Japan and Tokyo] Target Tokyo. The Tokyo area, the target of biological attacks by Aum Shinrikyo, is home to about 30 million people, making it the largest metropolitan area in the world.