A story this week caught my eye: Paris’ Pasteur Institute has disclosed that it lost thousands of tubes of samples of the deadly Sars coronavirus. I read the story with a mix of astonishment and irritation. As I have previously discussed, I represented Dr. Thomas Butler, a former Texas Tech professor, who was criminally charged after he revealed that a small number of vials containing bubonic plague samples had disappeared — possibly sanitized by accident. Butler self-reported the loss and was immediately the subject of a bizarre FBI investigation by the Bush Administration and former Attorney General John Ashcroft. He was later hit with a series of national security charges and labeled “Dr. Plague” by the media. While the jury rejected virtually all of the national security counts but a minor allegation on shipping (unrelated to the missing vials), the world’s leading expert on plague was still sent to jail. The Pasteur Institute lost 2,349 vials and the French government is correctly treating it as a non-criminal matter.
The virus in the French tubes are not immediately infectious and contain small fragments of the virus responsible for killing 774 people in 2002. More than 8000 were infected that year with most occurring in China.
What is particularly telling about the story is how close the account is to Butler’s account, including the belief that the tubes may have been sent to disinfection without a record or by mistake. This was in a high-security and large lab. Yet, the FBI dismissed Butler’s explanation that the same thing likely occurred in his small university lab.
As is too often the case, the Justice Department leaked the story to the media to guarantee that media was at the airport to show FBI agents pouring off planes. It caused a public panic and Ashcroft fueled the panic by demanding an emergency briefing with President George Bush. Ashcroft during this period was striving to keep fear alive after 9-11 (this was also around the time that he falsely claimed that the FBI had foiled a plot by Padilla to explode a nuclear weapon in a major city — a claim that the White House itself had to later retract). After the FBI clearly confirmed that there was no terroristic threat (including the ridiculous leaked allegation that Al Qaeda might have been given the vials), it was simply too embarrassing to admit that the Bush Administration had fueled a panic and exaggerated the threat as it did in the Padilla case. In the end, Butler was convicted of minor contract disputes with the university that were charged as fraud. They were completely unrelated to the original controversy, of course. The Bush Administration put huge pressure on the university over Butler and Texas Tech (which received large federal grants) threw Butler under a bus. The contractual disputes between the university and Butler were common disagreements that you find in virtually every university. Nevertheless, the Administration wanted to save face in the embarrassing case by forcing Butler to accept a plea of guilty to a single national security count and he refused. They proceeded to pile on contractual fraud claims to punish him for not declaring himself a national security menace.
Dr. Butler remains one of the most inspiring scientists in the world — helping poor families in some of the most dangerous areas of the world. Indeed, I was brought into the case by ranking scientists from around the world who were horrified by the case. (I later was joined by my friend and colleague Dan Schwartz from the Bryan Cave law firm). To this day, many of us believe that Butler should receive a pardon and an apology for this abusive case. In the meantime, Butler continues to serve mankind with research and work with impoverished nations while Ashcroft and his former aides have made millions on dubious government contracts.