In 1966, Army proved subways vulnerable to biological attack

Published March 21, 1995|Updated Oct. 3, 2005

The U.S. military proved nearly 30 years ago that deadly bacteria could be quickly spread through the New York subway system just like Monday's terrorist attack in Tokyo.

As part of a military experiment to test the vulnerability of the United States to biological weapons, a harmless bacteria was carried onto a busy New York City subway system in midtown Manhattan in June 1966.

A man carrying the bacteria walked to the edge of the platform with the rest of the passengers. When the door to the train opened, the man entered and dropped a light bulb filled with bacteria spores between the train and the platform, bursting the bulb on the tracks.

The train left the station, and so did the bacteria. Within 30 minutes, detectors picked up sizable traces 10 blocks away.

The bacteria was the harmless bacillus globigii.

The experiments _ which included spraying bacteria at National Airport in Washington, D.C., and other U.S. sites _ remained secret for more than a decade, but the Army was criticized when the news finally surfaced during a 1977 congressional investigation.

If anything, the danger of a chemical or biological attack by terrorists is greater today, according to terrorism experts, and the proof is the attack on the Tokyo subway system. More than a half-dozen people died, thousands were sickened and the world's busiest subway system was brought to a halt.

In the wake of the attack, authorities in major cities around the world _ including New York _ said they are taking precautions against similar threats.

According to a 1993 study by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, an attack on Washington by a Scud-type missile carrying a warhead filled with sarin would cause between 60 and 200 deaths, while a single-airplane bomb load could cause between 300 and 8,000 deaths, depending on weather and wind conditions.

The Army's early research was on biological agents, which are more dangerous than chemical agents such as sarin, because they actually live and spread in populations.

A report prepared in June 1994 for the Pentagon's office of Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict warned specifically of a chemical or biological attack on a subway anywhere in the world.

"Terrorism has become theater, and if they want to get on CNN, they want a bigger bang," the author of the report, Marvin Cetron, said Monday.

"Will there be subway copycats? Probably," said Cetron, president of Forecasting International Ltd. in Arlington, Va.

A Pentagon spokesman said that soon after the subway attack, the Japanese Foreign Ministry asked for U.S. military equipment to detect chemical agents but later withdrew the request.

A six-member team known as a Technical Escort Unit is always on standby at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md., to respond to problems with chemical or biological weapons, said the spokesman, Maj. Rick Scott.

In experiments as part of the Army's Biological Research and Development Program, which ran from 1943 to 1969, Washington, D.C., was a laboratory.

During an experiment that was conducted between August 1949 and March 1950, a man walked through National Airport carrying a briefcase fitted with a spray device.

Although the agent used was harmless, it spread throughout the entire airport in a matter of minutes in doses that would have been lethal had it been sarin or some other deadly agent.

_ Information from the Washington Post and New York Times was used in this report.