from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2006, Issue No. 65
June 2, 2006

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The prosecution of Thomas C. Butler, the distinguished scientist who was convicted in 2004 of exporting plague bacteria to Tanzania without proper authorization and of various contract violations, came to a final conclusion last month when the U.S. Supreme Court denied his petition to review the matter.

Yet the Butler case may endure as a parable of our times, since Dr. Butler, a specialist in plague and other infectious diseases, is such an unlikely criminal and the government's pursuit of him seems so heavy-handed.

By all accounts, Butler is a person of extraordinary stature and achievement.

"The defendant's research and discoveries have led to the salvage of millions (!) of lives throughout the world," Judge Sam R. Cummings of the Northern District of Texas admitted in March 2004, before sentencing him to two years in jail.

A terrorist is one who destroys life indiscriminately. We lack a word for someone who saves millions of lives indiscriminately. If there were such a word, it could be applied without exaggeration to Thomas Butler.

But incredibly, his expertise in infectious diseases was invoked against him by the post-9/11 prosecution.

"From the outset of the trial, the government openly sought to use the specter of plague to convince the jury that Dr. Butler was a 'bad person'," wrote Butler's defense attorney, George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley.

"The government analogized the actions of Dr. Butler to the practice in the Middle Ages of catapulting plague-infested human cadavers into walled cities to cause panic and death, bringing widespread panic to the quiet town of Lubbock," Turley recalled.

See the Butler's petition for certiorari, filed at the U.S. Supreme Court on April 11, 2006:

The petition was denied without comment by the Court in a May 15, 2006 order.

Science Magazine (26 May 2006, p. 1120) reported that "His supporters, including chemistry Nobelist Peter Agre... are hoping against hope for a presidential pardon, if not from George W. Bush then possibly from his successor."

Selected case files, statements of support and other background materials on the Butler case are available from the Federation of American Scientists here:

Dr. Butler completed his prison term and returned home in December 2005.


In his 1995 executive order 12958, President Clinton directed that most historically valuable classified records be automatically declassified as they become 25 years old. The onset of this automatic declassification process was deferred repeatedly, but it was affirmed in principle by President Bush in his 2003 executive order 13292, and the initial phase of the process is now scheduled to begin at the end of December 2006.

"It is one thing to conceive such a concept and quite another to implement it," wrote William Leonard, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, in the latest ISOO annual report to the President.

"As of September 21, 2005, ISOO estimate[d] that 155 million pages of classified national security information must be declassified, exempted, or referred to other agencies by December 31, 2006."

"ISOO believes, for the most part, that the Executive branch is progressing toward fulfilling its responsibilities for these records by the deadline," Mr. Leonard wrote.

A selection of agency declassification plans presented to ISOO detailing plans for compliance with the automatic declassification deadline, obtained under the FOIA by Michael Ravnitzky, is posted here:

For related background, see "Progress Toward the Automatic Declassification Deadline of December 31, 2006" in the 2005 ISOO Annual Report to the President (at page 19):


The legal issues and security procedures involved in litigating national security cases are introduced in a handbook published by the Navy Judge Advocate General.

"National Security Cases and cases involving classified information are inherently complex because they impose strict security, reporting, coordination, and approval requirements on top of the necessities of investigating, trying, defending, or adjudicating charges."

"Some offenses are capital and often are 'high visibility' cases overseen by the media, senior government officials, and Congress."

The JAG handbook "contains information and guidance on the preparation, prosecution, defense, and adjudication of such cases."

See "The Judge Advocate's Handbook For Litigating National Security Cases," Office of the Judge Advocate General, Department of the Navy, n.d. (2002):


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

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