Plague of FBI Agents Descends on Scientist

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Did you hear about the scientist who was subjected to a KGB-style interrogation and railroaded into jail despite the horrified objections of human rights groups and the scientific community?

No, not Igor Sutyagin, the arms control expert whom the Kremlin considers a traitor. I'm talking about Thomas Butler, an infectious diseases researcher whose work has saved countless children from diarrhea-related dehydration deaths. As the judge noted this week while handing down Butler's two-year sentence, "the defendant's research and discoveries have led to the salvage of millions of lives throughout the world."

Butler was working on a new antidote for bubonic plague when he realized that 30 vials of the plague had gone missing from his laboratory at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. Had they been stolen? Inadvertently destroyed? Butler says he was alarmed enough to notify university authorities.

Sixty FBI agents descended upon his laboratory and his home, and Butler says they quickly announced their conclusion: Butler himself had accidentally destroyed his plague samples. Butler says he demurred through he considered the agents' explanation unlikely.

The FBI continued to press him to declare that he'd accidentally destroyed the samples, Butler says, assuring him that he wouldn't be charged because his admission would calm a supposedly fearful American public.

Without a lawyer, and exhausted after nine hours of interrogation without food or rest, Butler reluctantly signed -- at which point he was taken to jail in handcuffs and leg irons, charged with having made a false report to the FBI about plague samples that were never missing.

Over the months, more and more charges were piled on. His lawyers, stunned at what was happening, called the government's handling of the case "other-worldly," and "a train wreck." One of the charges involved a dispute over the timing of federal tax deductions -- a dispute in which Butler had corresponded openly with the tax authorities and ultimately paid the amount sought. Others revolved around run-of-the-mill disagreements between the university and Butler over how to divvy up research grant money.

Butler had also borrowed plague samples from scientists in Tanzania (where the plague is not uncommon), carried them on his person back home on a plane, and then, when he was done with his work, mailed them back to Tanzania in an unmarked package. Testimony at his trial suggests this is not unusual behavior in the world of biological research -- thought it's certainly a little hair-raising, and worthy of serious reprimand.

But as Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists puts it, "After the first million lives that he saves, a defendant is entitled to some leeway when it comes to the commission of non-malicious crimes." Butler was given none. The government charged him with smuggling and mail fraud. He lost his tenure, his medical license, and now, with four kids and a wife at home, he's off to jail at age 62.

And we still don't know where his vials of plague are.

Other bio-terrorism researchers say they're destroying their own disease samples rather than risk a visit from 60 of John Ashcroft's boys. "If you step outside the United States," says Peter Agre, one of four Nobel Prize winners to ask for leniency for Butler, "the Tom Butler case is seen as some crazy American witch hunt. My European colleagues and my Canadian colleagues and friends wonder just what in the hell is going on here."

Matt Bivens is a former editor of The Moscow Times.