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The Hot Seat 

Dr. Thomas Butler had very good reasons for carrying bubonic plague aboard passenger flights -- but that didn't stop the U.S. government from ruining his life.

On the morning of April 14, 2002, Dr. Thomas Butler was preparing to board a plane at the Dar es Salaam International Airport in Tanzania for the exhausting two-day journey -- layover in London included -- back to Texas. The prospect of a long flight couldn't dampen his excitement at returning home. Butler's 10-day stay in the impoverished East African country had been fruitful, and he was anxious to unwrap his precious souvenirs. Within Butler's metal footlocker, loaded into the plane's cargo compartment, lay 60 carefully sealed vials of bubonic plague.

Nine months later, Butler found himself under arrest for smuggling a biological pathogen into the United States. The U.S. Department of Justice beamed with pride over its capture of a bona fide bioterrorism suspect. "An incident that could have sparked widespread panic of a bioterrorism threat in west Texas was stopped clean in its tracks thanks to the quick, coordinated actions of ... law enforcement," U.S. Attorney Jane Boyle declared in a press release. "This case is an example of how ... authorities at all levels of government are approaching their commitment to protect the public with cool heads and joined hearts." But Butler's case wasn't that simple, and what transpired between his April plane trip and his trial in U.S. District Court in Lubbock, Texas, in November and December of 2003 may have changed this country's biodefense initiative permanently.

Butler never intended to mishandle plague and certainly never intended anyone to become infected with the disease. On the contrary, as a researcher who works on infectious diseases, he's been trying to cure it for the last 30 years. His arrest is the first to come after a bill increasing security restrictions on scientists working with infectious biological agents was passed into law in 2002. Others in the field, including Butler's many friends and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, his alma mater, are now worrying that his case is only the beginning, as security concerns over bioterrorism go head to head with a scientific culture used to operating on its own terms.

OTHER THAN MANUFACTURING Buddy Holly memorabilia, Lubbock, Texas' main business is education. Texas Tech University, a school of some 30,000 students, dominates the town. If you live there, chances are good you either go to Texas Tech, went to Texas Tech, or work at Texas Tech. Butler is in the last group. Since 1987 he has been chief of the Infectious Disease Division at the university's Health Sciences Center.

Up until his arrest, Butler was reaping the benefits of a lifetime of work. His position at Texas Tech rounded out a successful career as a world-renowned expert in infectious disease. Though he's treated an array of diseases throughout his career, his reputation is based on his early work with plague.

He has followed the disease around the world. His first encounter with plague occurred while serving as an Army doctor during the Vietnam War. The country was suffering from a plague epidemic, likely precipitated by wartime conditions, and Butler frequently treated civilian patients suffering from the terrible disease. After returning home and finishing his medical training, he spent the next decade studying plague, exploring new ways for developing countries to quickly identify and treat outbreaks. He often returned to Vietnam, as well as countries such as Bangladesh and Brazil, whenever plague outbreaks arose. Along the way, he picked up many admirers.

Dr. William Greenough, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, worked with Butler in Bangladesh in the late '70s. "[Butler] is superb, high-integrity, very productive in finding things out about diseases under difficult circumstances," Greenough says. "And certainly from a clinical point of view, [he's] the person who knows most about plague in the country. I've known him throughout his professional career. There's no question about his scientific integrity or his importance in knowing about diseases which, until we were worried about bioterrorism, few people had interest in."

Few people in the United States, that is. Those who have continued to work with infectious disease over the past several decades do so because these diseases have continued to ravage the developing world. And they have continued their work despite being largely ignored by the world's largest biomedical funding agency, the U.S. government.

Dr. Donald Henderson, a scientist at the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, has himself had a long and auspicious career in infectious disease. He directed the World Health Organization's global effort toward smallpox eradication from 1966 to 1977 and has watched the field change over the years.

"Funding for infectious disease [research] for a long time was really low," Henderson recalls. "In the late '50s into the '60s, there were many statements made that we've conquered the infectious diseases, we must now turn our attention to the chronic diseases -- cancer, heart disease. And in the U.S., with vaccines and with antibiotics, the infectious diseases diminished significantly. In the developing world they remained a huge problem. That was largely ignored. We were focused ... on our own problems, not the problems of the world."

Recently interest has returned, although not in purely altruistic form. In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, lawmakers have realized that all those infectious diseases we thought we had conquered are still out there and could easily come here. An interest in infectious disease has been reborn under the mantle of bioterrorism defense.

"The possibility [of a future biological attack] is reasonably good," Henderson says. "It's not that difficult to obtain the material; it would not be that difficult to release the material. The biologic agents are a much bigger worry than the chemical or nuclear agents." The lapse in infectious disease research has left the United States particularly vulnerable to such an attack, he says: "There are some very nasty black clouds out there right now, and we are not prepared."

With a whiff of bioterror panic in the air, politicians have begun writing enormous checks to federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration to quickly increase the U.S. defensive arsenal through the development of vaccines and drug treatments. Chad Kolton, a spokesman for the federal Office of Management and Budget, states that biodefense is a top priority for the Bush administration. The president's proposed 2005 budget backs this up. Biodefense spending overall has risen to more than $6 billion, of which $1.7 billion is allocated to biodefense-related biological research, a 3,000 percent increase from 2001 funding levels.

Fatefully for Dr. Thomas Butler, on the list of bugs thought most likely to be used by a terrorist lies his baby, the plague. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) classifies plague as a "type-A" organism, which puts it in the company of smallpox, anthrax, botulism and a handful of others. The criteria are simple. According to an FDA video series on bioterrorism, an agent is considered type-A if "it generates fear, it spreads easily, and it kills quickly."

Plague satisfies all three requirements. A historic terror, the disease decimated one-third of Europe's population in the 14th century. Although initial symptoms of plague are similar to a cold (swollen glands, fever, chills, headache), if the disease progresses, the bacteria can cause internal hemorrhaging and tissue necrosis. The dead tissues eventually become gangrenous, causing the victim to turn black -- hence the disease's macabre nickname, "Black Death."

Historically, plague has only spread easily when cities were overrun with rats that carried plague-infected fleas, because the most common form, bubonic plague, can't pass from human to human without the flea as a middleman. But with the appropriate machinery and know-how, plague can be aerosolized and turned into an airborne agent. Aerosolized plague would lead to infections in the lungs. Pneumonic plague is a particularly deadly form of the disease, and one that can easily be spread person to person. If appropriate treatment doesn't begin within 24 hours after symptoms appear, the CDC estimates, the mortality rate to be nearly 100 percent.

Lethality alone doesn't explain why the scourge of the Middle Ages would be at the forefront of 21st-century biodefense programs. A scientist living in Arlington, Va., by the name of Ken Alibek represents a bigger reason. Born Kanatjan Alibekov, he was a scientist in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and '80s, during the height of its biowarfare program, the Biopreparat. After defecting to the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union, he gave a detailed interview to The New Yorker in March of 1998 in which he listed the Soviets' achievements, including weaponizing plague. He also reported that many of the scientists he had worked with had since scattered to the wind, taking their expertise in bioweaponry with them.

Right now there is no vaccine for plague, and the only FDA-approved treatment is streptomycin, an antibiotic known to cause hearing loss and kidney dysfunction. In fact, the side effects are so dangerous that streptomycin is almost never used in the United States and hence is difficult to come by. In 2002 the FDA announced it was offering $2.1 million in grant money to develop better drug treatments for plague.

That's where Butler came in. A notation made in one of his journals, introduced during his trial, read, "Go after bioterrorism moneys for grant to work on plague."

ALTHOUGH HE HADN'T WORKED ON plague in recent years, Butler easily returned to his roots. To investigate the efficacy of alternative antibiotics to streptomycin, he went to the source and organized a clinical trial in the United Republic of Tanzania, an East African country that has endured several widespread plague outbreaks over the past 15 years.

In early 2002, his clinical trial began at the Muhimbili Medical Center, an understaffed clinic located in the capital city of Dar es Salaam and affiliated with the local university. Butler met with his Tanzanian collaborator, Dr. Eligius Lyamuya, to lay the ground rules. They would draw fluid from the swollen lymph nodes of patients diagnosed with plague, while treating them with either gentamicin or doxycyclin. Butler would then examine the cultures in his lab in Texas to compare the effects of the two antibiotics.

By April 2002, the last of 60 patients were enrolled in the study. Butler flew to Tanzania to collect the plague cultures, and then he and the cultures made the journey back to Texas on April 14. In order to insure his samples would survive the long trip, he opened the footlocker on the streets of London during a layover to repackage it with more dry ice. All of the samples reached Texas unharmed and without incident, and he eagerly got to work.

The first task was confirming that the patients did in fact have plague, a sophisticated laboratory test that the Muhimbili Medical Center was unable to perform. In the United States, only the CDC is certified to confirm the presence of the bacteria that causes plague, Yersinia pestis, so on June 23, 2002, Butler packed his plague samples into the trunk of his car and set off on a 600-mile road trip to the CDC lab in Fort Collins, Colo. All of the cultures tested positive for plague, and on Sept. 9, after the samples were returned to him, Butler FedExed the plague samples back to his collaborators in Tanzania.

Suddenly, the government got interested. The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), the Department of Defense's lead laboratory for biodefense, located in Frederick, Md., heard about Butler's study and wanted to add these new strains of plague to its collection. On Oct. 1, Butler hopped on an American Airlines flight headed to Reagan National Airport carrying a cardboard box containing an assortment of plastic vials and dishes of plague bacteria, and then drove them up to researchers at USAMRIID.

All of these transports occurred without any problem or incident. None of the many people with whom he dealt at CDC and USAMRIID turned him in to the authorities for tooling around the country with plague. In fact, it came out at Butler's trial that a scientist at CDC had written to him in an email in May 2002 that "the hand carriage to Fort Collins bespeaks of your 'real' field experiences."

BUTLER'S ACTIONS DIDN'T COME under any scrutiny until Jan. 11, 2003, when a quick notation in his lab notebook would change his life. It read: "Set 5 missing!" Translation: 30 vials of bubonic plague had disappeared from Butler's lab, and he had no idea where they could be.

Butler quickly informed Dr. Donald Wesson, the head of his department at Texas Tech, that he was worried about the possibility that terrorists obtained the vials. "It was my primary concern," Butler recalled in an interview with 60 Minutes last September.

Peter Agre, a professor of biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins University and a 2003 Nobel Laureate, has known Butler since they trained together at Hopkins in the early '70s. He recalls that fateful suggestion of terrorism: "I think he suggested it might have been terrorists. If he said that, I'm sure he's sorry he did. It's like in a crowded theater softly saying 'fire.' Then others [start] screaming and pointing, 'He yelled, "fire!"'"

The bioterrorism phone tree was activated. Local law enforcement contacted the FBI, and, as FBI Special Agent Miles Burden later testified at Butler's trial, the president was soon briefed on the situation. As the FBI began looking into the incident, it quickly determined that this was not a case of bioterrorism. "By that afternoon it had been resolved," says Victoria Sutton, a spokeswoman for Texas Tech.

Resolved in terms of a possible bioterrorist threat, but FBI agents still had 30 vials of missing bubonic plague to account for. Agents began to theorize that this could be the act of a disgruntled employee and, as Burden testified at Butler's trial, it seemed likely to the FBI that "the disgruntled employee might indeed be Butler."

The city of Lubbock was panicked. The country was panicked. The plague loss "was on CNN," Sutton recalls. "Cattle futures and pork futures went down. They closed trading because it was dropping so much."

Butler testified at his trial that after having been questioned by the FBI for hours, he agreed to sign a statement designed to calm the public's fears. He claims that FBI agents convinced him that it would be best if he said he had actually destroyed the samples and simply forgotten, rather than lost them. His statement read in part, "although I cannot specify the time or date of the destruction, I know for a fact that the pathogen was destroyed and poses absolutely no health risk to the public." Butler claimed that Special Agent Dale Green of the FBI told him, "'If you're able to recall this for me and sign a statement to that effect, we'll both walk out of here and nobody will be investigated.'"

Six hours later the FBI arrested Butler on the grounds that he had lied to the FBI when he falsely reported the plague vials missing. Butler has since recanted the signed statement and stresses that he still does not know what happened to the missing plague samples. In his 60 Minutes interview, he said he "was tricked and deceived by the government."

Neither the FBI nor the U.S. Department of Justice responded to repeated requests for comment about Butler and his case.

As the investigation of Butler continued, his travels with plague came to the attention of the FBI. After agents backtracked his movements over the preceding several months, Butler was charged with 15 federal counts involving smuggling plague into the country, transporting smuggled goods within the United States, and making false statements to the FBI.

In early August 2003, Butler refused a plea bargain, and soon prosecutors filed 55 additional charges against him. None involved plague. Investigators had looked into every aspect of Butler's life, including his finances, and discovered ongoing grant disputes he had with Texas Tech involving money he received from private pharmaceutical companies for consulting on clinical drug trials. Rather than have the money go through Texas Tech, which subtracts a certain amount from such funds for overhead costs, Butler had the companies pay him directly. In the indictment, the federal prosecutors allege that Butler had "intentionally embezzled, stole, and converted to his own use thereby depriving [Texas Tech] of the funds of the contracts."

In short, Texas Tech "weren't getting their cut," Agre explains.

Universities differ in their procedures regarding outside consulting, but the practice is very common. Thomas Lehman, a physiologist at Texas Tech who was present at Butler's trial, states that in his opinion Butler's consulting contracts seem legitimate.

"Many of us at the university are employed as consultants by companies outside the university," Lehman notes. "Some at the university are [hired] with the understanding that they are required to bring in sufficient funds, through grants and consulting, to cover their own salaries. The Tech operating procedure on consulting is very vague -- many of us who are engaged in consulting at this moment may very well be breaking the rules. I too have had checks sent directly to my home address as payment for consulting work. I have not paid Tech one dime out of these funds."

As far as Texas Tech was concerned, Butler's contracts were unusual enough that when university officials first found out about them in July 2002, they immediately turned the matter over to internal auditors. Eventually, every payment to Butler, either by mail or wire transfer, became a separate charge of fraud. At his indictment on Aug. 14, 2003, Butler was charged with a total of 69 felony counts and found himself facing more than 400 years in prison and $17 million in fines.

IT SEEMED TO SOME OBSERVERS that the feds simply wanted to put Butler away any way they could. Joe Birman, chairman of the Committee of Human Rights for the New York Academy of Scientists, wrote an open letter to both U.S Attorney General John Ashcroft and David Smith, the chancellor of Texas Tech. "We find extremely troublesome the piling on of theft, embezzlement, fraud, smuggling, and false tax return charges in the original and superseding indictments," Birman wrote. "While, once again, we do not claim to have knowledge of all the specific facts, the unavoidable impression here is ... [that] the Government is determined to obtain a conviction of Dr. Butler on something -- indeed, anything."

Smith responded to Birman's letter, stressing that "although I cannot discuss the specifics of the matter ... I would hope that you would withhold judgement regarding Dr. Butler until all of the facts are known." Smith contended that "most of the information that has been reported publicly regarding this matter is incomplete and inaccurate."

The National Academy of Science has taken an interest in Butler's case, as well, partially due to the influence of Agre. "I never felt I was a take-charge, give-me-the-microphone kind of person," Agre says. "But I was active on the Committee for Human Rights for the [National Academy of Science] and I alerted them right away, and they have observed this ever since, very closely."

The scientific community is taking special notice of Butler's case because many of the offenses with which he is charged are violations of extensive restrictions only put in place recently. Passage of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (aka the Bioterrorism Act), which was signed into law June 12, 2002, tightened security governing the use of dangerous biologic agents in research facilities.

Under the new act, all researchers in the United States had 90 days to register all "select" agents -- meaning any biological agents with the potential to cause harm to humans -- in their labs with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In addition to mandatory biennial review thereafter, new rules governing how researchers are permitted to handle these agents also went into effect. Extensive paperwork had to be filed with Health and Human Services before select agents could be sent between labs in the United States. During transport packages needed precise documentation. Scientists who wished to work on a select agent now had to submit their names every five years to the Department of Justice to go through a security clearance. Anyone who was considered a "restricted person" as defined by the Patriot Act would no longer be allowed to work on any select agent. All labs that contained select agents had to tighten up their security to the satisfaction of the Department of Justice.

The biggest change was that any violation of these regulations would now constitute a criminal offense. Enter Dr. Thomas Butler.

At his trial, Butler's defense attorneys suggested that as an older scientist -- he is 62 -- he simply had trouble understanding the complicated new regulations required to work with these organisms. Prosecutor Michael Snipes countered by painting Butler as a rogue scientist. A close friend of Butler's, who has asked not to be identified, claims the prosecution resorted to "pure theater" in an attempt to portray Butler as a "vicious and malicious person." The prosecution stressed that Butler's travels with plague were reckless, and declared the disease "in its own way as serious as the atomic bomb."

Other disease researchers, however, readily admit they had always hand-carried pathogens the same way Butler did. The new law notwithstanding, they say it's the safest way to transport these agents.

"If you have something precious and perishable, how do you transport it?" asks Johns Hopkins' Dr. William Greenough, who worked with cholera toxin in the 1970s. "You usually hand-carry it, which is the way it's been done, [and] there's never been a single example of anybody being injured by this practice. Certainly the last people you want to consign [specimens] to are baggage handlers."

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Dr. Donald Henderson agrees, acknowledging that he also frequently transported specimens in this way. Even if biological agents were to escape from a broken vial, he contends it's unlikely they would make even one person sick. "I transported a lot of scabs of smallpox, and if the vials broke and scabs fell on the floor, it wouldn't infect anybody," Henderson says. "Similarly, [Butler] is working with material that wasn't going to infect anybody. It's not as though this is a lethal weapon."

Butler told 60 Minutes that the practice of hand-carrying specimens even had a nickname -- V.I.P., or vials-in-pocket.

ALTHOUGHT HE PRACTICE MAY GO back a long way, critics of Butler's actions point out that the world has changed. "When I [flew] to Washington yesterday, I needed to take my shoes off to get on the plane," says Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who has examined Butler's case. "I wasn't happy about that. But the nun in front of me needed to take her shoes off, too. As far as the scientific community is concerned, they need to change like everybody else needs to change."

Agre agrees, to a certain extent. "Do scientists have to follow the rules?" he asks. "Well, of course they do, everyone does. But when the rules change, it's kind of hard to do that, and often times impractical when the person making the rules isn't the one doing the work."

The fact that lawmakers and security officers played such a large role in dictating these new restrictions has rubbed many researchers the wrong way. And, ironically, the consequences of the government's attempt to further guard against biological outbreaks, accidental or not, actually might lead to less preparedness if an outbreak does occur.

"It's a question of how far you go," Henderson says. "How far do you restrict what people are doing in this country in the laboratory? At some point it becomes so onerous trying to deal with all these [restrictions] that there are good people that are going to say, 'I'm not going to work on that disease anymore.' It's a nuisance."

The large amount of federal funding suddenly available has attracted many new researchers willing to deal with the regulations, but Henderson doesn't see it as a fair trade. "Any time you put more money into a field, yes, more people will come into it," he says. "But there are some extremely competent people whom you really need, and there are a number [of them] moving out."

Since Butler's trial that trend has already begun. Stephanie Loranger, of the Federation of American Scientists, has witnessed it already. "Some scientists have said the new security regulations are too onerous, they don't want to deal with it," she says. "They've said forget it, and had this ceremonial autoclaving where they destroy all of their stocks."

Stanley Falkow, an infectious-disease researcher at Stanford University, has declared that he will no longer work on plague infection as a result of the new regulations. Responding to questions via email, Falkow acknowledges that he found the new regulations "intrusive, oppressive, and not consistent with creative scientific work, so I opted to destroy [my] cultures." CDC has overseen the select agent registration, and CDC spokesman Ted Jones confirms that the agency has had a number of labs nationwide destroy their samples rather than work within the new guidelines.

For those who want to continue combating these diseases, some say the science has gotten harder. "A good example which no one will talk about is that we couldn't get the clinical samples of SARS virus into the country in a timely fashion to do the work on them at the beginning of the outbreak in February," Greenough says. "In that regard, we had crippled ourselves in approaching an urgent health problem globally. Right now if I were advising someone, I would say work in Hong Kong or Bangladesh or somewhere other than the U.S. if you're going to handle any agents on the select-agents list."

The CDC's Jones believes the new restrictions are necessary and thinks most researchers recognize that. "People are adjusting ... as needed," he says. "I think they understand post-September 11, 2001, why these new regulations are necessary. We know, based upon the anthrax-letter attacks, [that] we didn't have complete information about who had anthrax. I think there is value in knowing who has these things."

Still, the restrictions seem particularly confusing to researchers working with agents that are readily available in nature. Like plague, for instance, which is present in rodents in the western United States. Terrorists would have little reason to remove plague samples from a lab because, as Falkow points out, "plague is endemic in the United States and could be easily isolated from a number of natural sources. Plague is endemic in many parts of the world that are more likely to have terrorists than in my laboratory at Stanford."

AT THE SAME TIME THAT THE U.S. government has tightened restrictions on scientific researchers in an attempt to prevent bioterrorism attacks, it has undermined strengthening international bioweapons regulations. In December 2001, the United States, citing risks to national security, effectively halted negotiations designed to strengthen the international Biological Weapons Convention of 1972. The Biological Weapons Convention had been criticized in the past because, although it outlawed offensive bioweapons programs, it didn't provide any method of enforcement. The proposed new terms would have demanded international inspections of all countries with ongoing biodefense programs, including the United States.

Edward Hammond, of the Austin, Texas-based Sunshine Group, a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization that monitors bioweapons research, contends that the combination of U.S. resistance to the Biological Weapons Convention and the recent increased spending on biodefense will likely have more of an effect on whether other countries develop biowarfare programs than restrictions on agents moving between labs in the United States. "Logically, when other countries look at the U.S. investing this way and expanding the biodefense program this way, they are likely to follow suit," Hammond says.

Not only has the U.S. biodefense program been expanding, but some of the work being done seems inconsistent with the spirit, if not the letter, of the Biological Weapons Convention. A Sept. 4, 2001, New York Times article detailed several government bioweapons programs ongoing under the Clinton and Bush administrations. These consisted of genetically engineering more potent anthrax strains and designing germ bombs -- bombs that release biological agents. These types of actions are allowed under the Biological Weapons Convention because they are being done under the auspices of a defensive program. The rationale goes that in order to adequately defend against a biological attack, we need to think like the enemy. As Henderson explains, "Some of these things that the bad boys are doing, if we could understand what they might do, we'd be better able to protect ourselves."

The fact that these biodefense programs are highly secretive doesn't help their legitimacy. "I don't think the research that is being done is offensive," the Federation of American Scientists' Stephanie Loranger says. "However, I can understand that due to some secrecy issues regarding some of the research that is going on, it can be difficult to know for certain. I suppose it's almost a faith thing, that you have to trust that our government is standing by the Biological Weapons Convention."

Hazy information about biological weapons programs -- combined with incidents like the anthrax letters mailed to the White House and various congressional offices, which are now thought to have originated in a U.S. lab -- and cases of escaped pathogens as occurred at USAMRIID in 2001 have only increased public anxiety about bioterrorism. In cities like Sacramento, Calif., and Portland, Ore., residents have protested the introduction of new biodefense labs funded by the Bush administration's Project BioShield, citing safety concerns.

Into this situation stumbled Butler. Some see him as a scapegoat for a panicky public and an administration that so far has not had a great track record dealing with bioterrorist attacks like the anthrax letters. "John Ashcroft finally found somebody he could throw in jail about bioweapons, and it's sad," Hammond says.

BUTLER'S TRIAL BEGAN NOV. 3, 2003, and lasted until Dec. 1. He was acquitted of all the charges regarding smuggling and mishandling plague except for three centering on an improperly filled-out FedEx waybill for the samples he shipped to Tanzania. The 55 fraud charges proved more difficult to overcome.

"Some of his lawyers predicted that the piled-on charges would be the problem in the end," Agre recalls. "They considered them laughable, but they're still a charge."

Butler was, in fact, convicted of 44 of the fraud charges. On March 10, he received a sentence of two years in federal prison and a $53,000 fine. Butler must report to federal authorities by April 14 to serve his time at an as-yet undisclosed facility. Reached by phone last week, Kathy Colvin, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Texas, declined to comment on the case.

A close friend of Butler's, who asked not to be identified, says the trial has affected Butler and his entire family profoundly. While the family "has received a lot of support, it has affected [them] very much," the friend says. "[Their] life has changed -- it will never be the same."

In the months following the trial, Butler resigned both his professorship at Texas Tech and his license to practice medicine in Texas.

Butler's legal team plans to appeal the jury's decision. "We believe we have very strong grounds for appeal," says Jonathan Turley, a Washington-based lawyer for the National Academy of Science asked to sit in on Butler's case, pro bono. "He was convicted largely of standard grant disputes that academics have with their universities. Since this conviction, I have heard from at least half a dozen academics that have said they have followed the same interpretation as Tom Butler. The idea that he would go to jail for this is bizarre."

The outcome of Butler's trial has led to mixed emotions among his colleagues. Close friends of Butler's maintain his innocence on all counts, and say that this is simply a case of prosecutorial excess fueled by fears of bioterrorism.

"You don't put someone in jail for 10 years, destroy his professional career, over university overhead expenses," Greenough says.

"I think this'll be a textbook case eventually," Agre contends. "A big mistake, a big misunderstanding, totally blown out of proportion, and authorities being unwilling or unable to back down."

Others are less concerned with Butler's guilt or innocence regarding grant disputes with his university and are more upset over what they see as the harsh treatment of a dedicated scientist. The effects, they say, could harm the already tenuous relationship between researchers and domestic security officials. "Will scientists now hesitate reporting some missing pathogen or toxin for fear of precipitating the Kafkaesque consequences that Dr. Butler now faces from our government?" asked the New York Academy of Sciences' Joe Birman in his letter.

The ultimate question seems to be whether this episode makes our nation any safer, particularly in light of the fact that more researchers are now leaving the infectious-disease field because of it. "From the point of view of protecting us against bioterrorism, we're destroying one of the principal people who was working on our behalf," Greenough says. "I don't feel safe. I feel a lot less safe, personally, than I did before this happened." 

click to enlarge AUTUMN WHITEHURST
  • Autumn Whitehurst


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