Earlier posts have discussed the probable false confessions of Umer and Hamid Hayat, two Lodi men charged with supporting terrorism by attending an Al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan and lying to the FBI. FBI agents also obtained a proven false confession from Abdallah Higazy, an Egyptian student living in New York at a hotel on September 11, who was first picked up in December after a security guard at the hotel where Higazy was staying on Sept. 11 told authorities that he found an aviation radio in a safe in Higazy's room. The radio, it was said, was capable of communicating with the airplanes used in the attacks on the World Trade Center. After being told he failed a polygraph test, Higazy admitted that he owned the radio, telling agents three equally implausible stories --that he had found it in a subway station near City Hall; that he had found it underneath the Brooklyn Bridge; that he he had stolen it from the Egyptian Air Corps, in which he had once served. Higazy was charged with lying -- some of those stories had to be lies -- and thrown into solitary confinement for a month. He was released in late January after the security guard admitted that he had made the whole story up and an American Airlines pilot went back to the hotel to claim his radio.
And perhaps the most tragic of all of the false confession cases is that of Dr. Thomas Butler, one of the pre-eminent research scientists in the field of infectious diseases. Butler had imported several vials of the human plague from Tanzinia for research purposes and stored the vials in his lab at Texas Tech University. When the vials turned up missing one day, Butler notified the University which in turn contacted the FBI . With great fanfare, 60 FBI agents streamed onto campus and interrogated Butler at length throughout the night and the following day about the missing vials. They gave Butler a lie detector test and suggested that he had failed. If Butler continued to insist the plague samples were missing or stolen rather than destroyed, the Agent told Butler, the interrogation would continue for hours. On the other hand, if Butler were to recall having accidentally gotten rid of the bacteria, all the squads of lawmen could stand down and the public could be reassured there was no danger. Convinced that the investigation would be over and that he would not be arrested if he just agreed with the story suggested by the FBI, Butler relented and confessed that he had improperly disposed of the vials and had made a mistake in judgment by not recording his error.
Butler was later arrested for lying to the FBI and when he refused to plead guilty, the indictment against him grew to 67 counts, including counts relating to smuggling bioterrorism weapons and seemingly unrelated financial counts for defrauding the University and tax violations for failing to report consultant income. A confused Texas jury acquitted him of the bioterrorism counts but convicted him or the "contract counts" and he was sentenced to 2 years in prison (he has served his time and lost all his appeals).
This incredible case of overreaching is chronicled in the wonderful 7 part series in the Cleveland Plain Dealer by John Mangels. Below are links to the series and an editorial by Peter Agre, a Nobel-Prize winning chemist and friend of Butler's ,who maintains that in its zeal to score a victory in the war on terror, the Government may actually have struck a terrible blow in the war by making scientists who study biochemical agents reluctant to do this research anymore. God forbid that terrorists do strike our country with biochemical weapons -- we may be less prepared and less knowledgeable about how to control the damage from such a strike because fewer research scientists are willing to get involved in this work.