Government Accountability Project memo to climate scientists on new NASA media policy


In December 2005, NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen was threatened with “dire consequences” by a political appointee for statements he made about the implications of climate change that were seen as inconsistent with the administration’s political agenda. In the wake of strong public criticism of this heavy-handed attempt at censorship, on March 30 NASA Administrator Michael Griffin released a statement and a new information policy to govern how the agency will deal with the news media.  An analysis of the new policy by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) identifies areas that GAP considers an improvement, but also says “in six critical areas the new policy falls short of genuine scientific freedom and accountability, and potentially undermines the positive guarantees.”

The full text of GAP’s analysis:

To:  Climate Scientists
From:  Government Accountability Project

Re:  Analysis of NASA’s Recently Released Media Policy
The Government Accountability Project (GAP) is issuing advisory comments on NASA’s new media policy that it released yesterday, March 30. The new policy came in response to public outcry over NASA’s suppression of climate science research inconsistent with the Bush administration’s political agenda. NASA is touting the development as a free-speech breakthrough for agency scientists. 
GAP identified the areas in which the new policy is an improvement:

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin’s reassuring rhetoric is of symbolic value, demonstrating official respect for scientific freedom.

The new media policy does not cover scientific reports, web postings, or professional dialogue such as at conferences, allowing scientists to share information with their colleagues without going through public affairs political appointees.

The policy officially recognizes the free speech right for scientists to express their “personal views” when they make clear that their statements are not being made on behalf of NASA.

However, in six critical areas the new policy falls short of genuine scientific freedom and accountability, and potentially undermines the positive guarantees:

While recognizing the existence of a “personal views” exception, the policy doesn’t announce the circumstances when that right cancels out conflicting restrictions, which are phrased in absolute terms applying to contexts such as “any activities” with significant media potential. This leaves a cloud of uncertainty that translates into a chilling effect for scientists.

The policy fails to comply with the legally-mandated requirements of the Anti-Gag Statute to explicitly include notice that the Whistleblower Protection Act and Lloyd Lafollette Act (for congressional communications) limit and supersede its restrictions.

The policy institutionalizes prior restraint censorship through “review and clearance by appropriate officials” for “all NASA employees” involved in “preparing and issuing” public information. This means that scientists can be censored and will need advance permission from the “appropriate” official before anything can be released.

The policy defies the WPA by requiring prior approval for all whistleblower disclosures that are “Sensitive But Unclassified” (SBU). The legal definition of SBU is broad and vague, to the point that it can be interpreted to sweep in virtually anything. The WPA only permits that restriction for classified documents or those whose public release is specifically banned by statute.

The policy bans employees’ free speech and WPA rights to make anonymous disclosures, requiring them to work with NASA public affairs “prior to releasing information” or “engaging in any activities or events that have the potential to generate significant media or public interest or inquiry.”

The policy gives NASA the power to control the timing of all disclosures, which means scientists can be gagged until the information is dated and the need for the public to know about critical scientific findings has passed.

In December of last year, NASA climatologist Dr. James Hansen was threatened with “dire consequences” by a political appointee for statements he made about the consequences of climate change.  According to GAPs legal director, Tom Devine, “Under this so-called reform, Dr. Hansen would still be in danger of ‘dire consequences’ for sharing his research, although that threat is what sparked the new policy in the first place. The new policy violates the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Anti-Gag Statute, and the law protecting communications with Congress, the Lloyd-Lafollette Act. The loopholes are not innocent mistakes or oversights. GAP extensively briefed the agency lawyer on these requirements, who insisted he understood them fully. NASA is intentionally defying the good government anti-secrecy laws.”

Government Accountability Project
1612 K Street, N.W., Suite 1100
Washington, DC 20006
(Tel.) 202-408-0034
(E-mail)  [redacted]


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