Thomas C. Butler, the Texas Tech scientist who lost plague samples and prompted a national bioterrorism scare, is currently on trial in a federal district court in Lubbock. He faces up to $17 million in fines and 450 years in prison.
Indignant researchers have rallied to his cause, insisting that the charges are grossly disproportionate to the offense. They say that the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) overly aggressive prosecution is intended as a lesson—John Ashcroft’s not-so-subtle way of imposing discipline on uppity academics. The National Academies of Science even allege that the Butler prosecution will make the United States vulnerable by scaring scientists away from biodefense research.
While the charges appear to outstrip his transgressions, his case is an odd choice for a crusade on behalf of scientists, for reasons that have little to do with Dr. Butler himself. Both his defenders and the national media have missed the more important story about the nature of the research going on at Texas Tech.
Unbeknownst to most, the University runs a large and secretive biodefense program for the U.S. Army. That program conducts precisely the kind of work that has made the United States the target of criticism for pushing the envelope of acceptability under the Biological Weapons Convention, the main international agreement against biological warfare, and one to which the Bush Administration has done great harm. The University’s biodefense patron is the U.S. Army Soldier Biological and Chemical Command (SBCCOM), the same guys who developed much of our Cold War chemical and biological arsenals and who—even today—are working on weaponizing opiates like fentanyl, which killed more than 120 innocent hostages last year in Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater.
The conduit for SBCCOM money into Texas Tech is its ironically named Institute for Environmental and Human Health, located at the former Reese Air Force Base. While the Institute’s website emphasizes research on environmental contaminants and studies to save reptiles, that emphasis is misleading. The Institute is an Army biodefense research center that is intricately tied to Butler’s employer, the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. Pentagon biodefense dollars provide a whopping 75 percent of the Institute’s research contracts. Some of that money is designated for research on Dr. Butler’s specialty, the plague. The most recent publicly available financial documents from the University list 22 active biodefense contracts between the Institute and the Department of Defense. With few exceptions, it’s hard to say exactly what the University is doing for the Pentagon.
Acceptable biodefense research is about countering a real, demonstrated threat, not exploring the blackest possibilities of biowarfare based on the rationale that somebody, somewhere, sometime, might consider doing something to us. That’s because exploring the far dark side of bioweapons inevitably generates new knowledge and methods applicable to offensive, rather than defensive, weapons. Based on the limited amount of information that the University has made public, it’s reasonable to conclude that that is exactly what’s going on at the Institute. For example, SBCCOM-funded work in Lubbock includes a project to study deadly concoctions of different bioweapons agents mixed together. If the Bush administration found evidence of a similar project in another country, it would likely denounce that country for developing weapons of mass destruction.
The Butler case has never been simply about Butler. The story broke as the FBI was investigating the anthrax letters of 2001. Butler’s lost samples raised even more embarrassing questions about the security of Pentagon biodefense research. The anthrax case was never solved, but in Thomas Butler, the administration finally found someone to throw in jail. More importantly, the case is about enforcing the quid pro quo that the government and big research institutions have developed: various federal agencies provide enormous money for a tightly-proscribed research agenda on bioweapons. Researchers are funded if they kowtow to government priorities, including secrecy, and if they don’t screw up by making the biodefense program look like a public threat-like Butler did. A leak at a sensitive biodefense project isn’t just a potential health or terrorism threat-it could be an international political liability. Butler was close to projects that appear to fit that description, so it’s not surprising that Justice wants him in jail and that Texas Tech has turned on one of its former department chairmen.
Which brings us back to the scientists and institutions that have rallied to Butler’s cause. What are they actually defending when they allege that Butler and other biodefense scientists should be considered a privileged class because they are “on the same team” as John Ashcroft? There’s no question that DOJ is making an example of Thomas Butler, and probably unfairly so. But a far worthier cause for his impassioned defenders would be to challenge the biodefense agenda that is compromising institutions like Texas Tech.
The real tragedy is the fact that everyone is focused on lesser issues rather than the need to protect public science from being invaded by the Pentagon’s biodefense agenda. If anything positive is to emerge from the trial of Thomas Butler it will be a thorough public exploration of the ways that Pentagon-sponsored biodefense research is compromising academic integrity-not just at Texas Tech, but at universities throughout the nation.
Edward Hammond is director of the Sunshine Project, a small Austin-based non-profit dedicated to biological weapons control.