Senate committee lets Adm. Lautenbacher off the hook on NOAA media restrictions

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At a February 16 oversight committee hearing (video file; hearing begins at 17:50) on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fiscal year 2007 budget request, the Senate served up another example of the shortcomings of Congressional oversight of the administration’s handling of global warming. At a time of emerging outspokenness by federal climate scientists and increased media attention to political interference with public communication by scientists at NASA and NOAA, Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, the NOAA Administrator, was allowed to dance away from a couple of general inquiries with evasive and misleading replies, with no follow-up from the committee. The hearing was held on the same day the Wall Street Journal ran an article citing a “growing outcry from climate researchers in [NOAAs] own ranks.”

Our question for the NOAA scientists among our readers:  What do you think of the Admiral’s statements?  .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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On February 16 the Wall Street Journal ran an article saying that, “amid a growing outcry from climate researchers in its own ranks,” NOAA has started backing away from a statement it released after last years hurricane season that discounted any link between hurricanes and global warming. Among other things, the article said:

A ruckus erupted after the November issue of the agency’s magazine said there was a “consensus” among NOAA hurricane experts that increases in hurricane activity were primarily the result of natural factors—even though within NOAA some believed man-made warming was a key cause.

Thomas Knutson, a research meteorologist with the agency’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J., said he believes his views have been censored by the NOAA public-affairs office because of his view that global warming could be making hurricanes worse. Last October the public-affairs office said no to a scheduled interview with CNBC television, he said.

“NOAA public affairs called and asked what I would say to certain questions, like is there a trend in Atlantic hurricanes,” Dr. Knutson said. “I said I thought there was a possibility of a trend emerging that tropical hurricanes were becoming more intense. They turned down that interview.

At a talk on February 10 in New York at a conference on Politics and Science, Jim Hansen of NASA said that when NOAA took a position last fall that hurricane intensification is unrelated to global warming, “It seems that the public, by fiat, received biased information.”

Adm. Lautenbacher should be questioned more seriously about the restrictions in NOAA’s Media Policy and about his involvement in what appeared to knowledgeable observers to be a calculated effort by NOAA in the fall of 2005 to discuss hurricanes in such a way as to steer public attention away from any linkage to human-induced global warming with the case of Dr. Knutson being one item for consideration.

The same day the article ran in the Wall Street Journal, Adm. Lautenbacher appeared before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation as the sole witness at a full committee hearing on the Administration’s FY2007 budget request for NOAA.  Video (hearing begins at 17:50) of the hearing is available on the Committee’s Web site.

The following exchange starts at the video’s 42:51 mark:

Co-Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii): In today’s Wall Street Journal article, the article suggests that NOAA or the White House is either stifling or censoring reports issued by your climate scientists.  Is there any truth to that?

Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., U.S. Navy (Ret.) (Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator): There is no truth in it in regards to all the matters that I know about.  We have an open policy that supports peer reviewed science.  I have a scientific background.  I have been completely open.  I love open debate.  I encourage it.  Ive told my team to continue to do that.  We have a wide variety of scientists within NOAA.  NOAA scientists, dozen of them every day are talking to the press and providing information.  Our press office works to get them hooked up with people who want to answer questions.  Even the comments in the Wall Street Journal are proof to the fact that it is open for people to talk and do as they wish.

Most of the feedback that I’ve got indicates that they are not happy with the press policy.  But a press policy is something that every organization has, even the Senate has it and your offices have press policies.

You like to know when people are talking to the press if they get calls.  We have the same sort of press policy.  But the issue of supporting peer-reviewed science—absolutely clear: peer reviewed science speaks for itself.  We dont change peer-reviewed science.  We don’t interfere with the ability of our scientists to discuss their peer reviewed science in any legitimate forum that they wish.

Co-Chairman Inouye:  Is there any truth to the suggestion that the White House may be censoring scientists from your shop?

Vice Admiral Lautenbacher:  I am not aware that there is any truth to that at all.  I work in a chain of command.  I work for the Department of Commerce.  The Department of Commerce works for the White House.  There are policies that ask for people to report when they have been contacted by the press.  That is the system.  The fact is that our scientists are out there right now saying whatever they want to say.  I’ve never seen anybody to be able to muzzle a scientist—lets put it that way.  And they talk.  That is just not our policy.  We don’t do that.

Thats it.  A general question about whether “reports” are being censored, with a reply that the Admiral supports peer-reviewed science.  Another general question about the White House, with a second unilluminating defense of the idea of having a press policy.  No follow up.

We’re quite certain that committee staffers, at least on the Minority (Democratic) side and probably on the Republican side, are better briefed on these problems than the hearing indicates, and we can only assume that they made an effort to bring their members up to speed.  Sen. Inouye did ask two questions.  But he apparently didn’t know enough to pose more incisive questions or deal with the replies. Other senators at the hearing addressed other issues.  And very few of the other Committee members were present: No McCain, no Kerry, no Lautenberg, no Snowe, no Boxer—nobody who might have pursued a more focused line of questioning about this important issue.  Perhaps members can request written responses from the Admiral to some follow-up questions.

Here are some questions we have for NOAA scientists and managers:  What do you think of the Admiral’s answer?  Has he “been completely open,” as he asserts?  Do all NOAA scientists “say whatever they want to say?”  Has the Admiral “never seen anybody able to muzzle a scientist?”

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