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Last Updated

15 Sep 2003

Source: Washington Post, August 28, 2003

Science Groups Protest Researcher's Treatment

Scientist Couldn't Account for All Plague Specimens

By Ceci Connolly, Washington Post Staff Writer

The prestigious Institute of Medicine and National Academies are protesting the treatment of a scientist by federal prosecutors, calling attention to the case of a Texas researcher who sparked a nationwide bioterrorism scare in January when he reported 30 vials of plague bacteria missing.

In a letter to Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, the groups' human rights committee voiced concern that the prosecution of Thomas C. Butler on 15 felony charges is unfairly aggressive and will discourage other scientists from pursuing critical bioterrorism projects. The Aug. 15 letter marks only the second time the independent scientific panels have taken a stand on behalf of a U.S. researcher.

Butler, a world authority on infectious diseases such as plague, was arrested in January after telling Texas Tech University officials he could not account for a portion of the plague bacterial samples he had brought back from Tanzania. He subsequently acknowledged destroying the bacteria. In April, a federal grand jury indicted him on 15 counts, including smuggling, lying to investigators and illegal transport of biohazardous material.

Most of the charges revolve around trips Butler made overseas in 1994 and 2002, while he was researching treatments for plague, which is caused by a deadly bacteria that homeland security experts fear could be used as a biological weapon. Prosecutors accuse Butler of violating federal laws when he failed to properly report that he was carrying specimens believed to contain plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis.

In one affidavit, FBI agent Michael Orndorff noted that Butler's allegedly false statements raised unnecessary alarm and wasted valuable investigative resources. The case caught the attention of President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and prompted more than 60 federal, state and local law enforcement officers to investigate.

Butler's allies suggest the confusion over the missing bacteria was the result of the absent-mindedness of a scientist who has always been lax about paperwork and regulations. They say it has long been common practice for scientists to personally transport specimens, a habit referred to as VIP for "vials in pocket." They say a charge of filing false tax returns against Butler shows the Justice Department is hunting for extra counts it could lodge, and they note that the charge relates to a dispute with the university over the allocation of federal grant money.

Richard Baker, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case in Lubbock, Tex., and a spokesman for the Justice Department both declined comment.

As the case has unfolded, an array of prominent scientists have come to Butler's defense, prompting an investigation by the Committee on Human Rights, an independent panel of scientists that represents the IOM, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. In addition to its letter to Ashcroft, the committee has recruited George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley to represent Butler and is mounting a campaign to urge its 1,700 members to write letters, make phone calls and send money for Butler's legal defense.

"He is a scientist in good standing in the community and an expert in the field of plague," said committee Chairman Torsten N. Wiesel, a Nobel laureate and president emeritus of Rockefeller University. "It is important for the scientific community to say: This is a man we trust; see that this person is dealt with with due respect. The way the case has been moving so far gives us reason for concern."

The action is unusual for the committee, which traditionally focuses on cases involving the imprisonment overseas of scientists, engineers and medical workers whom it considers prisoners of conscience. The only other domestic case in which the 27-year-old panel has intervened was the botched prosecution of Wen Ho Lee, the scientist accused of stealing nuclear secrets. After serving nine months in prison -- and after three letters from the committee -- the former Los Alamos National Laboratory researcher pleaded guilty to a single felony charge.

The case began when Butler, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and tenured professor in infectious diseases, alerted his supervisors that he could not find some of the plague specimens he had brought back. Colleagues say Butler expected an internal investigation, but campus police instead alerted federal authorities. Butler was arrested and taken away in handcuffs. Butler, who had waived his right to an attorney, was interrogated alone throughout that night and into the next day, according to court records.

"Doctor Butler felt he was on the same team, so he didn't bother to get a lawyer -- big mistake," said his friend William Bates Greenough III, a professor of international medicine at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Butler was kept under house arrest for months and is prohibited from returning to Texas Tech. Greenough, arguing that Butler's research is critical to homeland defense, is lobbying the scientific journal Lancet to publish Butler's findings on possible new plague treatments.

Many scientists see a bitter irony in the Butler case, arguing that the war on terrorism appears to be targeting a man thought to be one of the leading warriors.

"It may well be he's violated the letter of the law, but certainly not the spirit of the law," said Charles Carpenter, an IOM member and professor of medicine at Brown University. "This will have a chilling effect on scientists . . . . It will hurt further work on potential weapons of biological warfare."