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Last Updated

26 Sep 2003

Source:  Washington Post, September 25, 2003


Mr. Butler and the Law

TO THE GOVERNMENT, Thomas C. Butler is a criminal who defrauded his employer, smuggled dangerous pathogens and sent federal law enforcement on a wild bioterrorism goose chase by falsely reporting 30 vials of bubonic plague missing from his lab. To his defenders, Mr. Butler is a respected infectious disease expert and a victim of the war on terrorism run amok. The Texas Tech University researcher and defendant in a 69-count federal indictment, in fact, is fast becoming a cause celebre in scientific circles upset at law enforcement's meddling in biological research. The reality of the case seems more complicated than either side's caricature.

Mr. Butler's defenders describe his case as an attack on academic freedom. But no principle of academic freedom allows scientists to make false reports to the FBI or carry disease agents as luggage -- as the scientist is alleged to have done. Mr. Butler allegedly brought plague bacteria into the country and shipped samples domestically without proper permits. Nor is tighter enforcement of the legal rules about handling disease agents unreasonable in a world in which bioterrorism poses a real threat. In post-Sept. 11 America, government would be derelict if it did not insist on knowing who has what bugs.

After telling colleagues that he did not have plague samples in his lab, Mr. Butler informed his university in January that some of his samples had been stolen. The FBI sent 60 agents to Lubbock, Tex., for a full-scale investigation; even President Bush reportedly was informed. Mr. Butler initially stood by his claim, but after a lengthy interrogation, he reversed himself and signed a statement retracting it. He reported the vials missing, he said, "to demonstrate why I could not account for the plague bacteria that had been in my possession"; the plague "had been accidentally destroyed earlier." Since being charged, Mr. Butler appears to have retracted this retraction as well. It's easy to understand why prosecutors would react harshly. Mr. Butler's motives remain opaque, but at best his actions unacceptably wasted investigators' time and energy. His more vigorous defenders risk the reputation of academia by portraying his activities as the normal, reasonable behavior of a scientist.

That said, Mr. Butler is pretty clearly not a terrorist. And the shocking fact is that reputable scientists routinely carry biological agents by hand. The practice is so common, in fact, that it reportedly even has a name: VIP, or "vials in pocket." This makes the multiple felony counts against Mr. Butler -- some of whose shipments were to government agencies -- seem heavy-handed.

Moreover, the government has also larded the indictment with dozens of counts of defrauding and embezzling money from Texas Tech in the management of grants. Even assuming these charges are provable -- and Mr. Butler is innocent until proven guilty of all of the allegations -- they have nothing to do with the conduct that drew the bureau's interest. Criminal cases are not the best forums for resolving financial disputes between universities and their faculties. The government would have done better to stick to the issue at hand.