Prof. Thomas Butler, who was indicted in early 2003 of various charges including improperly transporting samples of plague bacteria (Yersinia Pestis) into the United States, was held overnight at the Miami International Airport after TSA agents found a “suspicious” metal canister in his bag, which they thought could be a pipe bomb. After searching for Prof. Butler in a database, officials learned of his past charges associated with plague bacteria. He had been on a teaching assignment in Saudi Arabia, which likely raised another red flag. With this information and a “suspicious” canister, airport officials decided to evacuate a portion of the airport and bring in the bomb squad.
Butler was released Friday morning since, and according to an AP reporter, “Tests showed that Butler, the container and his other belongings did not contain any hazardous biological material or explosives.” This is another example of a scientist being, as some may feel, harassed by federal officials (a few past examples include Thomas Butler in 2003, Steven Hatfill, and as some believe, Bruce Ivins). On the other hand, I can understand why the officials acted as they did with the information they had. I can only assume with the current level of information that the “suspicious” canister was, or was similar to a dewar flask, a very common and somewhat expensive insulated stainless-steel container. It is sad to see the wasted resources, time, and the disruption that a typically innocuous metal container catalyzed in the Miami airport.
Incidences such as this one may increase as the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) biology community increases in numbers and if there is a lack of communication between law enforcement and the scientific community on how to address these issues. From the science side, FAS and AAAS published a report on How Scientists View Law Enforcement. And from the Law enforcement side, Edward You (FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate) is working with the scientific community to foster open communication. We at the FAS biosecurity program are continuing our efforts with scientists and the law enforcement community; one of the fruits of our efforts will be released by the end of the year – stay posted!