The White House is stonewalling the House Government Reform Committee on climate documents


The White House Council on Environmental Quality has been stonewalling a July 20 request from the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Government Reform Committee for documents relating to interactions between CEQ and other government agencies and outside parties about the Administration’s communications on climate science and related matters. What is CEQ concealing? From our experience we were able to supply a piece of the answer.  The Government Reform Committee wants to know more about the activities of CEQ Chairman James Connaughton, former Chief of Staff Phil Cooney, and other key CEQ personnel.

We reported on the July 20 letter from Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-VA) and Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) to CEQ in our July 24 post (House Government Reform Committee calls for White House CEQ climate change documents). A September 20 follow-up letter from Mr. Davis and Mr. Waxman (full text is below) rejects CEQ’s rationalization for delay and asks for all relevant documents in the files of CEQ Chairman James Connaughton, former Chief of Staff Phil Cooney, and 5 other named individuals, including unredacted versions of documents previously provided by CEQ to nongovernmental organizations pursuant to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. 

CEQ has objected to turning over what it refers to as “deliberative process” materials—or what are sometimes referred to as “pre-decisional” materials.  In the letter, Mr. Davis and Mr. Waxman give the following strong response: “We do not accept Mr. Boling’s rationale for the delay in providing the unredacted FOIA documents. Congress does not recognize deliberative process as a basis for withholding information and could not provide effective oversight without access to deliberative materials.”

Climate Science Watch Director Rick Piltz was criticized by one leading Climate Change Science Program official last year for giving certain pre-decisional documents, the most well-known of which involved CEQ, to the media.  From our viewpoint, doing so was a carefully-thought-through act that we believe was a public service, and that failure to do so would have felt essentially like being part of a conspiracy of silence about something the public should know about.  Apparently Mr. Davis and Mr. Waxman get the basic point.  We endorse their effort.

One of the things we hope the Committee leadership is able to uncover in this investigation is CEQ’s role in managing climate change-related media communications by federal agencies. Documents obtained from NOAA via FOIA requests include a complex flow chart showing all the hoops a climate science media communication must jump through before it is released. CEQ appears nowhere in the chart, but we believe CEQ exercises considerable influence outside of formally recognized process.  Is CEQ approval required for agency news releases on climate science-related matters that are believed to be politically sensitive (e.g., the relationship between global warming and hurricane intensity), and are they, in effect, still Cooney-izing how the government communicates, or fails to communicate, climate science to the public? 

Full text of the letter (also posted here in PDF format Davis-Waxman_CEQ_letter_20Sep06.pdf):

WASHINGTON, DC 20515-6143
September 20, 2006
Mr. James L. Connaughton
Council on Environmental Quality
722 Jackson Place, NW
Washington, DC 20503
Dear Chairman Connaughton:
This letter follows up on our letter of July 20, 2006, and subsequent communications between our staff regarding our request for documents in that letter. As you know, we asked the Council on Environmental Quality to provide the Committee with certain documents that would shed light on interactions between CEQ and other government agencies and outside parties relating to the Administration’s position and public communications on climate science and related matters. To date, CEQ has provided us no documents other than documents CEQ had previously publicly released pursuant to Freedom of Information Act requests from environmental groups and other parties.
In a follow-up meeting of our staff on August 17, 2006, CEQ staff expressed reservations about the time and resources that would be required to provide the requested documents. In response, our staff sent you an e-mail on August 29, 2006, that significantly narrowed the scope of the original request and established priorities for document production.
In the August 17, 2006 meeting, CEQ staff emphasized that responding to the original document request would require a large and time-consuming search of e-mail databases and other sources. To accommodate this concern, our staff asked that CEQ first provide to the Committee a copy of the documents that CEQ had already assembled and released under the Freedom of Information Act. After reviewing those documents, staff requested the unredacted version of those documents in an August 28, 2006 e-mail. Complying with this request should have been simple and expeditious since it required no new searches by CEQ.
In the August 29, 2006 e-mail, we also narrowed our original request to documents involving only seven individuals currently or previously employed by CEQ. CEQ has not provided an organization chart listing all of its staff, past and present, involved with climate change issues, as our staff requested on August 18, and again in the August 28, 2006 e-mail. Nevertheless, our understanding is that there are many additional staff, including the General Counsel, Deputy General Counsel, a former Chief of Staff, congressional liaisons, and likely others, who have handled or currently handle climate change issues but were not included in our narrowed request.
On September 12, 2006, we received a letter from Edward Boling, the Deputy General Counsel for CEQ. In that letter, Mr. Boling objected to providing the unredacted FOIA documents on the grounds that it would require a review of “hundreds of pages” and would involve “deliberative process” materials. In addition, Mr. Boling expressed concern that the central request remained too broad and burdensome. His letter called upon the Committee to “identify any specific Administration position or public communication that provides a basis for the Committee’s request,” prior to CEQ beginning a document search.
We do not accept Mr. Boling’s rationale for the delay in providing the unredacted FOIA documents. Congress does not recognize deliberative process as a basis for withholding information and could not provide effective oversight without access to deliberative materials. For this reason, we insist that you provide two sets of unredacted copies of these documents by October 3, 2006.
Our letter of July 20, 2006 enunciated the basis for the Committee’s request and clearly laid out the scope of the request. No further explanation should be necessary for CEQ to conduct a search for these documents. Nevertheless, in an effort to reach an accommodation, we are willing to further narrow the request by dropping our requests for items (4) and (5) in our initial July 20, 2006 letter, which were the two broadest components of that request. Of course, we reserve the right to renew a request for these materials should future developments warrant it.
As revised in the August 29, 2006 e-mail and in this letter, our request is that you provide to the Committee all communications and other documents that (a) were sent to or generated by, reference, or are in the electronic or paper files of any of the following individuals: James L. Connaughton, Phillip Cooney, Bryan Hannegan, Marty Hall, Kenneth L. Peel, Bill Holbrook, or Michele St. Martin; and that (b) relate to:
(1)  Mr. Cooney’s activities related to climate change;
(2)  CEQ’s review of and suggested edits to materials produced by other federal agencies regarding climate change; or
(3)  Efforts by CEQ to manage or influence statements made by government scientists or
experts to representatives of media regarding climate change.
We understand that performing e-mail searches may take some time. As such, please provide two sets of these documents to us on a rolling basis, rather than waiting to provide us with a complete production. Please begin this production by October 9, 2006, with a completion date of October 23, 2006.
Thank you for your assistance in this matter.

Tom Davis
Henry A. Waxman
Ranking Member


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