- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The advance of the terror-proof state has consequences for technologists that are unintended and not immediately obvious — for example the driving out of biologists from medical research.

According to New Scientist, the British journal of science and technology, federal antiterror regulations have made it legally dangerous to work with certain pathogens. You can go to jail. So scientists are bailing out.

It seems that 30 vials of plague bacteria disappeared from the laboratory at Texas Tech of Thomas Butler, 62. He was chief of the Infectious Disease Division at Texas Tech University’s Department of Internal Medicine. He faces 68 charges of smuggling, and could get life.

Depending on whose story you believe, he was charged with illegally bringing bacteria into the United States, was intimidated by the FBI, and so on. I don’t know. I do know that he has a long record as a responsible researcher working on plague. A terrorist he isn’t. Yet the FBI is getting ready to ruin his life.

Federal regulations are now so tight, and contradictory with regard to the handling of pathogens, that accidents or failures to document can be jail-time offenses. Researchers are afraid that any slip could make them felons. (The Washington Times first noted these concerns in a June 9, 2003, special report on bioterror.)

Several major researchers asked by New Scientist about the new regulations refused to talk. Others refused to go on the record. These are lifelong serious researchers who are afraid to have their names used. They are afraid of the FBI. In America. Is something wrong with this picture?

The researchers involved do not oppose security, but think that the current regulations do more harm than good.

I talked to three bioresearch folks, who did not want their names used. They differed in suggested approaches to security in laboratories. They all agreed that the case of Steven J. Hatfill has made disease researchers wary of the government.

Mr. Hatfill is the former Ebola researcher for the U.S. Army who has been persecuted for years now in connection with the mailings of anthrax. The government has brought no charges, produced no evidence, yet caused him to lose jobs, intimidated his girlfriend, and generally ruined his life.

The Hatfill case has been widely covered in the press. The chilling effect on researchers in pathogens hasn’t. They look at Mr. Butler and Mr. Hatfill, and think, “Let somebody else do this research. It isn’t worth the risk.”

Says the magazine, “Irreplaceable collections of microbes essential for managing and tracing outbreaks, bioterrorist or natural, are being destroyed simply because labs cannot comply with the new rules.”

Rules made by anonymous, unaccountable bureaucrats, who are unfamiliar with research, often produce undesirable results. Vague and complex rules make it easy to transgress unwittingly. Said one researcher, “Every single lab involved in select agents has violated the regulations somehow. The FBI can come in and find you out of compliance whenever it chooses.”

New Scientist also discovered that “labs in one state are no longer reporting routine incidents of animals poisoned with ricin, a deadly toxin found in castor beans, for fear of federal investigation.” Ricin could be used in terrorism. For fear of federal prosecution, some labs are quietly not doing what they are paid to do.


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