Incredible Story - When a
Cult Turns To Germ Warfare
Reported by Sheryl WuDunn, Judith Miller, and William Broad
Written by William Broad
New York Times
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 U.S. 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 many had thought 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 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 safety.
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 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."
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 treatments.
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 as well.
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 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 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, 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 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 off."
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. Again, nothing.
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 warfare.
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 the disaster.
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 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 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 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 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 laws.
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 red tape.
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 meaningful way."
Today, the U.S. safeguards are just going into effect as Congress and the administration 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, 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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