Has Any American City Ever Faced Biological Warfare?

History Q & A

Mr. Beres, a graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, was sports information director at the University of Oregon.

Threats of terrorism have taken many forms in recent weeks. But none more pervasive than the biological. First, cropduster planes were grounded nationally. Then cases of anthrax disease were reported in Florida. Suddenly the nation awoke to prospects of germ warfare as one of the terrible realities of international terrorism.

But the frightening prospects, while new to the rest of the nation, were an old story in Oregon-- a 17-year old story that involved a conspiracy to cause sickness in one Oregon community by spreading cultivated germs at public food counters.

In the wake of the September 11 airliner attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the federal government began exploring possibilities for biological follow-up attacks. That revived memories of the poisoning of residents of The Dalles in north central Oregon by members of the Rajneeshees cult in 1984. Now departed, the controversial religious commune in the early '80s had bought and settled on a 64,000-acre plot of land in Wasco County, a few miles from The Dalles.

I was reminded of the Rajneeshees while reading a new Simon & Schuster book, Germs, by New York Times reporter, Judith Miller. In an accident of good timing, it appeared in bookstores for the first time on Sept. 11. Its opening chapter describes the sickness conspiracy that in 1984 hit The Dalles, a town of some 20,000 on Interstate 84, near the edge of the Columbia River. The Oregon poisoning incident got greater national exposure when mentioned by a guest authority on biological warfare during the Lehrer NewsHour of Public Television, Oct 1. More attention came in the Oct. 3 edition of Time Magazine, which mentioned it as"America's First Bioterrorism Attack."

For all the attention it now gets, early investigation of The Dalles trauma was a comedy of errors in the judgment of Jim Weaver, then an Oregon congressman in Washington.

Weaver told me:"I'd gotten familiar with the `bug' of choice in The Dalles, salmonella, during my college days studying biology. I knew the area because I chaired the Congressional committee that approved Bureau of Land Management transfers, such as that sought by the Rajneeshees." Weaver was impatient with preliminary investigations of the state that suggested food handlers had carelessly infected salad bar food."I said that was ridiculous," recalled Weaver."Data from a study done by the Center for Disease Control clearly showed it was poisoning from the outside. State health authorities simply did not want to face the truth. They were scared of causing panic."

The reason for the poison plot was simple politics. The Dalles had a big proportion of Wasco County's voters. Conspirators among the 4,000 new residents of the cult compound figured their bloc of votes could swing the election their way and give them control of the county, if many voters in The Dalles were too sick to go to the polls. The Rajneeshees had a surprisingly sophisticated medical lab. There they developed the germ culture for salmonellosis, which they then began to spread in salad bars of the town's restaurants. For its size, The Dalles had a high proportion of restaurants-- 35-- because of the heavy traffic of Interstate 84.

"Big Mom" of the cult, Ma Anand Sheela, was personal secretary to the Bhagwan leader of the commune. She was accused of masterminding the poison plot, and soon had a public identity outside the commune exceeding that of the Bhagwan. Her co-conspirator, Ma Anand Puja, was accused of developing the germ cultures in the lab. Her scientific aberrations earned her a nickname with Nazi German connotations:"Nurse Mengele."

The commune was well-funded and tightly-controlled. It had several jet planes and a helicopter, and a 60-man police force. Rep. Weaver got on the case after a visit from legendary Oregon Olympics track coach, Bill Bowerman, whose family had property in Wasco County. He was concerned about what he considered disruptions by the Rajneeshees, and worried about the inexplainable incidence of illness. His son, Tom, a Eugene businessman, said he at first thought germs allegedly cultivated by the cult"were more obnoxious than lethal."

Former Oregon Supreme Court justice, Ed Fadeley, then president of the Oregon Senate, took the issue more seriously:"I felt the Wasco County situation might have grave health implications, and that the germs had the potential for killing people." Weaver sought the expertise of the leading authority on salmonella at the University of Washington. The scientist told him:"You must have a madman loose down there." But he added to Weaver's frustration by refusing to make the statement publicly.

Dave Frohnmayer, University of Oregon president, was the Oregon Attorney General who investigated the growing list of complaints directed at the Rajneeshees. He led a task force that discovered glass vials of bacterial disease in the cult lab. Some evidence suggested a separate plot to kill 11 persons, including an Oregonian reporter.

At that point, the Bagwhan, leaving behind his fleet of Rolls Royces, fled in one of his jets. He was caught at a North Carolina refueling point. He paid a fine of $400,000. When Frohnmayer could not get the U.S. government interested, the guru-- who had turned on the two"Mas" and accused them of trying to create a fascist community-- was allowed to leave the country. Both"Mas," Sheela and Puja, were extradited from their West Germany sanctuary, and sentenced to 24-year prison terms. They served four years in a California prison before being paroled, and fleeing the country.

The conspiracy went public in a big way when Rep. Weaveer made a speech on the subject in the Congress on Feb. 28, 1985, earning it a place in the public record through publication in the"Congressional Record." But it did him no good among doubting constituents."This came at the height of concern with political correctness," said Weaver."Some people criticized me for what they called bigotry against a religious minority. Students spat on me when I visited the University of Oregon. The Oregon press villified me when I kept pushing the investigation."

What bothered the Congressman most was what he calls self-censorship by the media. When the Congressional Research Service did a study of what appeared in the national press, it found the only published reference to the poisoning controversy made outside Oregon was one sentence in the New York Times. Weaver believes many public officials were afraid of creating a panic by making public the investigation. He feels Secretary of State Norma Paulus took the issue seriously, as did Frohnmayer,"although he was not forceful enough in pursuing the case."

In April, 1985, Weaver got a letter on stationery of the Rajneeshees Medical Assn. It sought from him an apology for" choosing to hide behind legislative immunity" while criticizing members of the commune in the Congress.

"They, and we, are lucky they left Oregon," said Weaver."Only now do we recognize how easy it is to get pathogens from a germ bank if you have the identity of a medical corporation. As we face new threats since September 11, we're learning how vital it is for our intelligence operatives to get information from informers."

Long retired from the Congress, Weaver has discarded some records from his term of office, but has kept four boxes of documented data from the Rajneeshees case.

"It is frightening when one considers how bad it might have become," he says."When the FBI eventually investigated the cult's medical lab, it found experimental cultures of the AIDS virus."

Today, almost two decades after the"germ attack" in Oregon, I share with many uncertainty over what to expect next in a world of conflict that has vastly changed. If this new battleground threatens to explode in our midst, the lessons of The Dalles in Oregon could guide U. S. security agencies now facing a new kind of alert.