Miami airport shut down after security officials see researcher’s canister

Miami airport shut down after security officials see researcher’s canister

Posted Friday, Sep. 03, 2010

By Jennifer Kay and Curt Anderson
The Associated Press
MIAMI — The suspicions airport security officials had when they saw a metal canister grew when they learned about the man who brought it from the Middle East: a scientist who sparked a bioterrorism scare after he reported missing vials of plague samples seven years ago.

Officials shut down most of Miami International Airport overnight Thursday, roused nearby hotel guests from their beds and detained Dr. Thomas Butler until Friday morning, when he was released without charges, a senior law enforcement official said.

Tests on the canister found nothing dangerous, according to a release from the FBI’s Miami field office.

The canister was used to transport dead bacteria samples that are part of a legitimate experiment, a government official said.

Butler’s former attorney said the incident appeared to be a “fantastic overreaction.”

Butler, 70, is a world-renowned plague researcher who became the focus of a federal investigation in 2003 when he reported that 30 vials of plague were missing from his Texas Tech University lab.

He was acquitted of smuggling and illegally transporting the potentially deadly germ, and of lying to federal agents about the missing vials. Jurors found Butler guilty of mislabeling and unauthorized export of a FedEx package that contained plague samples he sent to Tanzania.

Before his trial, leading scientific organizations expressed concern about the case against him and its effect on research. Four Nobel laureates said in an open letter that he had been “subjected to unfair and disproportionate treatment.”

Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, said Butler “has spent his entire life protecting and healing people in some of the most impoverished areas of the world.”

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