There is an interesting story out of Galveston, Texas where officials say that a vial of hemorrhagic fever has gone missing from a research facility at the University of Texas Medical Branch. What is striking is that the school has simply said that the vial was probably lost in a cleaning process. I represented Dr. Thomas Butler who was charged with numerous national security counts for the loss of vials of plague. I was brought into the case by the National Academy of Science members who were alarmed by the abuse of this esteemed scientist by the Bush Administration. With the encouragement of federal officials, Butler was vilified in the media as “Dr. Plague” in an absurd federal prosecution despite the fact that he revealed the missing vials and also thought that they were likely cleaned. Yet, the Justice Department not only pursued him viciously but enlisted Texas Tech University to make unrelated contracts claims against him to try to force a plea bargain. Butler is one of the leading experts on plague and is revered by many for his selfless work in some of the poorest areas of the world. He went to jail (on the contract claims) while the Justice Department is just shrugging off the loss of this vial on the same theory.
It is not clear how such lax handling of hemorrhagic material can occur or why it is able to be housed in labs like this one. Yet, the response to the case only puts the Butler case in sharper relief. Attorney General Ashcroft wildly misrepresented the Butler case in a meeting with George Bush and dispatched an army of agents to Lubbock. The Justice Department leaked the story to the media which created absolute panic and international press for Ashcroft. They soon found that there was no evidence that Butler, a renowned humanitarian, gave the vials to terrorists. The whole allegation was absurd since plague is widely available in third-world countries if you are looking for samples. It was laughable to think that Al Qaeda would go to Lubbock for such vials. Yet, in the Bush Administration, this type of overreaction was something of a signature move.
The problem was that, after quickly deducing that there was no terrorist threat, the Justice Department needed a scalp to explain its massive mobilization to Lubbock. This followed the Padilla embarrassment when the White House had to disavow a claim by Ashcroft that he and his department had foiled a nuclear attack on a major city. They were not going to simply come home empty handed and leave Ashcroft again looking like a clown. While the jury rejected virtually all of the national security counts (except a minor claim of transportation unrelated to the missing vials), the DOJ secured convictions on charges that were little more than contractual disputes with Texas Tech.
The latest story out of Texas simply shows what a farce this prosecution was and how Dr. Butler was made a scapegoat for an over-reaction by the Bush Justice Department. To this day, I view the jailing of Dr. Butler as one of the worst abuses in the post-911 period.