WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Federal authorities claimed yesterday that they foiled an apparent terrorist plan to unleash a Japanese-style gas attack on visitors to Disneyland during its crowded Easter weekend festivities.
The plot was thwarted when authorities at Los Angeles International Airport apprehended two Japanese travelers a few days before Easter with information in their possession about how to make the highly toxic nerve gas sarin, The Sun has learned.
The two were allegedly members of the Japanese cult that released the same type of poison gas into the Tokyo subway system last month, killing 12 people, the officials added.
Without divulging specifics of the incident, President Clinton referred to it yesterday at a news conference after suspects were taken into custody in connection with the Oklahoma City bombing.
"There was one recent incident with which I was intimately familiar, which involved a quick and secret deployment of a major United States effort of FBI and FEMA and Public Health Service and Army personnel because we had a tip of a possible terrorist incident which, thank goodness, did not materialize, but we went to the place and we were ready, we were ready to try to prevent it, and if it occurred, we were ready to respond," Mr. Clinton said.
The president cited the incident as an example of the sort of counter-terrorist activity by the federal government that "the public does not see, most of which I should not comment on."
According to officials, who divulged details of the operation on condition that they not be identified, the attack was apparently planned for Easter weekend, when the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, Calif., puts on special attractions, swelling attendance the park.
On Easter Sunday, Disneyland held its annual Roger Rabbit's Easter Buffet and Scramble -- an annual buffet followed by an egg hunt that has been a large crowd draw. Tom Brocato, manager of publicity at Disneyland, said in a telephone interview that the park never releases crowd figures, but this year's event was "the best we've ever done" in attracting the public.
Federal officials were first alerted to the possibility of a terrorist incident by executives at Disneyland, according to one official.
"They were the ones who sounded the alarm," he said. Disney received a letter "suggesting something was going to happen," according to the official.
Mr. Brocato, the Disneyland publicist, did not return a second phone call seeking information about the warning.
In Tokyo, Japanese police sources confirmed the incident and they said they were pursuing the possibility that more than two men were involved in the plot.
Earlier this month, Tokyo police alerted the FBI that two Japanese men associated with the cult Aum Shinri Kyo were flying to Los Angeles International Airport.
Both were apprehended on their arrival in Los Angeles several days before Easter. In their possession were written instructions on how to make sarin, as well as a videotape. One of the men was allowed to continue on to New York but was followed by U.S. agents.
The videotape was later analyzed by the FBI. It contained images indicating the intended attack and possibly the location as well. Authorities obtained additional evidence that the attack was planned for Disneyland.
The tape also contained an image of a calendar, with the dates April 14, 15 and 16 -- the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Easter weekend -- circled. The time of 9 p.m. was written on each of the days, apparently the time that corresponds with the nightly fireworks display at the amusement park.
It could not immediately be determined last night where the two Japanese travelers are at present, or whether they were taken into custody. One man is still being detained in Los Angeles, one source said.
FBI Special Agent John Hoos in Los Angeles said he had no information about the arrest or detention of any foreign nationals in that area in the days prior to Easter Sunday. But he added, "If there was any type of information, I couldn't give it to you. It is our policy not to discuss anything that could be part of an ongoing investigation."
Eight members of the Army Technical Escort Unit, based at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, were among a law-enforcement and military team dispatched on a government jet to California on April 13, three days before Easter. The unit, whose job is to dispose of and clean up chemical agents, was asked to assess the dimensions of a possible poison gas attack at the amusement park.
Two civilian scientists employed by the Army's Chemical and Biological Defense Command at Aberdeen were also sent to Los Angeles, along with physicians from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
While the Technical Escort Unit was in the air to Los Angeles, there was a conference call between federal officials and experts on poisonous gases at Aberdeen. Some of these experts had traveled to Tokyo last month to work with Japanese officials on the subway attack.
A dozen officials from the FBI, Los Angeles police, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, physicians from the U.S. Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took part in the conference call.
"One of the problems discussed was how the terrorists might use the agent in a big open-air park, where the terrorists would get the most bang for the buck," one official said.
They discussed specific sites inside Disneyland, which the source refused to divulge. If the gas were used outside, "it would quickly blow away," he added.
A small amount of sarin could be deadly inside a small exhibition hall or theater; just two ounces could kill those in the room after 10 minutes, the official explained. The special event on Easter Sunday, an egg hunt, was held at the Disneyland Hotel.
The rush hour gas attack in the Tokyo subway system on March 20 killed 12 people and sent thousands to the hospital with symptoms ranging from severe coughing to burning eyes, headaches and shortness of breath.
Almost immediately, authorities concluded that the chemical used in the attack was sarin, a potent nerve gas. Technically, it is not a gas but a fine liquid mist, tiny amounts of which can be extremely dangerous.
The attacks were linked to an apocalyptic religious cult called Aum Shinri Kyo, or Supreme Truth, and its shadowy leader, Shoko Asahara. Raids on the sect's hide-outs turned up tons of key ingredients for sarin, including sodium cyanide.
The sect denied any links to the attack, but police said that dangerous fumes -- including traces of sarin -- had been detected in the past at buildings owned by Aum Shinri Kyo. Authorities have arrested more than one hundred cult members since March 20, though not on charges specifically linked to the Tokyo attack. Last Wednesday, another gas attack in a Yokohama subway sickened more than 600 people, although police do not believe sarin was the culprit this time.
Yesterday, more than 20 shoppers were sent to the hospital after exposure to "foul odors" at a Yokohama department store. Investigators haven't determined exactly what caused that attack, either.