The Justice Department insisted yesterday that a threatened poison gas attack on Disneyland over the crowded Easter holiday weekend turned out to be "a hoax" but one that still warrants a criminal investigation into who was responsible.
A federal anti-terrorist strike force, which involved hundreds of people and drew the close attention of President Clinton, was swiftly mobilized 10 days ago after Disneyland officials were warned that a nerve gas attack would be unleashed upon visitors to the California theme park.
It was Mr. Clinton who first alluded publicly to the operation. At a news conference Friday, he referred to "a possible terrorist threat" that had prompted "a quick and secret deployment of a major United States effort."
The president added that he was "intimately familiar" with the threat ened attack, which never materialized. After The Sun published details of the incident in its editions yesterday, administration officials confirmed that Mr. Clinton had been referring to the Disneyland threat.
Yesterday, Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern described the poison agent threat as "a hoax" and said that the FBI is conducting a criminal investigation "to try to find out who was responsible."
A Disney spokesman said that federal authorities determined it was a hoax within 24 hours, on April 14.
Mr. Stern explained the large federal response, saying: "There's no question, in light of what had occurred in Japan, that when you get a threat that suggests, as this one did, a possible chemical agent, you have to respond responsibly."
However, some members of the strike force told The Sun that the warning to Disney officials was deemed especially serious because of the arrival in Los Angeles the week before Easter of two Japanese men with possible ties to the cult believed responsible for last month's deadly gas attack in the Tokyo subway.
Authorities in Tokyo confirmed yesterday that two Japanese men were questioned at Los Angeles International Airport and that the men at least appeared to be members of Aum Shinri Kyo, the cult believed responsible for the poison gas attack last month that killed 12 and injured more than 5,000.
A Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that authorities at the airport found that the two men had in their possession printed material related to sarin, the nerve agent used in the Tokyo attack. Under questioning, the men said that their purpose was to get information from chemists on how chemical substances related to sarin could be used for pesticides, the Japanese spokesman said.
U.S. authorities at the airport accepted the men's explanation, the Foreign Ministry spokesman said, adding that nothing criminal was found.
Separately, Tokyo police told Japanese news organizations that two Japanese who claimed to be members of the cult Aum Shinri Kyo were questioned at Los Angeles International Airport. The whereabouts of the men are not known.
Informed of the Japanese accounts, Mr. Stern replied: "I don't know of any basis for that. . . . I have no reason to believe two individuals were questioned at Los Angeles International Airport in connection with a possible gas attack at Disneyland."
Meanwhile, several members of the strike force stuck to their original assertion that the questioning of the travelers was directly related to the threat against Disneyland.
"It was treated as a very serious matter," one federal official said yesterday.
The federal response team, which began arriving in California three days before Easter, ultimately included hundreds of people around the country and remained in place for at least five days, according to one participant.
A command post was set up at the National Institutes of Health in Rockville to coordinate the effort, said another official.
"There was a lot of . . . help ready to move at a moment's notice," he said. "There were a hell of a lot of people on standby through the [Easter] weekend.
"If it was a hoax, it was one that the government took seriously enough to stay through the weekend," he continued. "If someone determined early on that it was a hoax, it would have been called off."
The federal team -- military units and people from a number of civilian government agencies -- included chemical decontamination experts, counterterrorism specialists, medical experts and others.
Team members from Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, the U.S. military's center of expertise on chemical warfare and defense, did not return to the Harford County base until one or two days after Easter.
Disney officials received a threat "sometime after" the sarin attack in Tokyo, according to the Justice Department spokesman.
"An anonymous threat was received by Disney," Mr. Stern said. He declined to discuss the nature of the threat, but sources said Disney security officials received a videotape of a man in rubber gloves mixing chemicals and turned it over to the FBI.
FBI officials were able to enhance a calendar in the video that showed three dates -- April 14, 15 and 16 -- encircled, with 9 p.m. written on each, coinciding with the time Disney holds a fireworks display.
Asked about the videotape, Mr. Stern said: "That would be evidence. We just won't talk about evidence."
Mr. Stern played down the threat. "Places like Disneyland do get these threats," he said. "Nine times out of ten when you get a fire alarm, there's no fire. We have to answer a fire alarm."
Disney spokesman Tom Brocato said the theme park's security team received a threat on Thursday, April 13, but said he did not know what it contained or the form in which it was received.
"Anaheim P.D. [Police Department] got in touch with federal authorities," he said. "They took it from there."