from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2003, Issue No. 73
September 5, 2003


The prosecution of Thomas C. Butler, a 62 year old professor of medicine at Texas Tech University, on charges of illegally importing plague bacteria and lying about it to federal investigators, has alarmed other scientists who say that prosecutors are overreacting and may be jeopardizing future research on preventing bioterrorism.

The growing consensus of opinion among leading scientists is that the government's handling of the Butler case is far out of proportion to the offenses that have been alleged, and that the matter is likely to have significant unintended consequences.

The Committee on Human Rights of the National Academy of Sciences called on Academy members to protest "the harsh treatment of this respected colleague and the potential negative repercussions that it may have on scientific research in his field."

It is only the second time that the Human Rights Committee has found it necessary to speak out on behalf of a U.S. scientist (the other occasion was the Wen Ho Lee case).

The prosecution of Dr. Butler is "troubling," wrote Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences, and Harvey V. Fineberg, President of the Institute of Medicine, in a separate August 15 letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"Dr. Butler... is highly respected by his professional colleagues for his scientific work," they observed, while taking no position on his guilt or innocence. "He is a recognized authority on infectious diseases who has significantly contributed to our scientific understanding of the kinds of communicable diseases that are currently of particular concern for the prevention of bioterrorism, such as plague."

They expressed concern that the heavy-handed prosecution of Butler could discourage other scientists "from embarking upon or continuing crucial bioterrorism-related scientific research."

The government's response to the scientists' concerns was not encouraging.

On September 3, prosecutors unsealed a new indictment of Butler. Instead of the original 15 counts, the new indictment presented 69 counts, including mail fraud and embezzlement.

See "Charges against scientist widened" by Scott Shane, Baltimore Sun, September 4:

On the other hand, Dr. Butler has lately gained vigorous pro bono legal assistance from Jonathan Turley, George Washington University law professor, Dan Schwartz, former general counsel at the National Security Agency, and Kevin Wolf, an expert on export/import regulations.

If they are to have a chance of success, Butler's volunteer legal team will need several tens of thousands of dollars to cover expenses. Those who would like to help support this effort may send a check made out to "The Thomas Butler Legal Defense Fund" to the following address:


Under pressure from members of Congress, scientific critics and others, the Department of Energy said that it will reduce its reliance on polygraph testing to screen its employees.

"The approach I am recommending would have the effect of reducing the number of individuals affected from well in excess of potentially 20,000 under the current rule to approximately 4,500 under this new program," said Deputy Secretary of Energy Kyle E. McSlarrow at a September 4 hearing.

Remarkably, however, Mr. McSlarrow also announced a separate random polygraph testing initiative, which is "an entirely new proposed element" of the DOE polygraph program. Random testing would apply in an unpredictable manner to an additional 6,000 persons not covered by mandatory polygraph screening.

This is truly novel. It is sort of a homeopathic approach to security policy, in which the mere specter of a polygraph test, not even an actual test, is believed to have a deterrent effect and to enhance security.

Under the random screening program, the affected personnel "would be subject to random selection for polygraph examinations at any time, at any frequency.... even though it is possible that an individual in such a position may never actually be selected through the random process," said Mr. McSlarrow. In fact, it seems doubtful that the majority of the 6,000 employees in the proposed random testing program would ever be tested.

Although firm numbers were not immediately available, the Department has probably not come close to testing the 20,000 persons who were nominally subject to the program since it began a few years ago. Consequently, the new "reduction" in the scope of its polygraph program is more apparent than real.

See the testimony from the September 4 hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the DOE polygraph program here:


The number of Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act requests to federal government agencies reached a record high in 2002, according to a new report from the Justice Department Office of Information and Privacy.

Among the report's findings are these: The total number of requests increased by seven percent over the previous year to a new high of 2,402,938. The Department of Veterans Affairs received the most requests (1,496,191); something called the Inter-American Foundation received the least (one). Agencies invoked 142 different nondisclosure statutes to withhold information under FOIA exemption 3. Personal privacy was the most frequently cited single exemption. Over $300 million in FOIA-related costs were reported by agencies in 2002.

See "Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for Fiscal Year 2002," posted here:

MILITARY SPACE PROGRAMS IN DISARRAY There are "systemic problems" in the nation's military and national security space programs, according to a report of the Defense Science Board that was released September 4.

Among other things, the next generation spy satellite program, known as the Future Imagery Architecture, is "technically flawed," the study found, and "not executable."

See "Acquisition of National Security Space Programs," Report of the Defense Science Board/Air Force Scientific Advisory Board Joint Task Force, May 2003:


Former Congressman Stephen Horn (R-CA), who retired last January, was an advocate of freedom of information and a reliable ally of all those who believe in the importance of independent oversight and accountability.

"As a Congressman, Steve Horn championed the public's Right to Know," reminisced Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). "He cosponsored a bill that expanded the Freedom of Information Act to include electronic information. He was outspoken against the abuse of secrecy by executive agencies and the willingness of many Congressional Committees to ignore their duties and allow such secrecy. He forced the CIA and the Department of Defense to release documents so that Congress could effectively perform oversight."

In tribute to Rep. Horn, the House of Representatives voted this week to designate the post office located at 2300 Redondo Avenue in Signal Hill, California, as the "J. Stephen Horn Post Office Building."



Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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