GAP letter to the NOAA Administrator on criteria for media policy reform


The Government Accountability Project has sent a letter to Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator, detailing GAP’s recommendations on NOAA’s media policy reform.  GAP is urging that NOAA enact a policy that eases and clarifies the flow of information to the press from NOAA scientists; makes federal scientists aware of their First Amendment right to speak to the media as citizens about any subject; gets rid of mandatory pre-approval and various other politicizing impediments to public communication by scientists that NOAA has engaged in; ensures that the ultimate decision about the content of and parties to any particular media communication lies with the reporter and the scientist whom the reporter requests; and avoids several shortcomings of the reformed NASA media policy, including its failure to comply with the requirements of the Whistleblower Protection Act. Click on “Details” for full text.

The letter is posted in PDF format on the Government Accountability Project Web site.

Government Accountability Project
National Office
1612 K Street NW Suite 1100
Washington, DC 20006
Tel 202.408.0034
fax 202.408.9855
E-mail: [redacted]


March 8, 2007
Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher
Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator
Office of the Under Secretary
U.S. Department of Commerce
USEC   EXEC Route:  A
14th Street & Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20230
FAX: (202) 482-1041

RE: NOAA’s media policy
Dear Vice Admiral Lautenbacher;
This letter is to congratulate you on NOAA’s reaffirmed commitments in recent congressional testimony to release a new media policy that eases and clarifies the flow of information at NOAA.  It is our understanding that this policy reform has been under consideration for quite some time now with heavy involvement by the Department of Commerce.  In light of this, we extend to you our thoughts so that any new policy will conform to the constitutional and statutory requirements for scientific freedom of speech.
The Government Accountability Project (GAP) is a non-profit, non-partisan whistleblower support organization with extensive experience on these issues.  GAP volunteers our expertise to assist in producing a lawful policy not only for its own employees, but as a model for other agencies throughout the Executive branch.  GAP has been investigating communication policies and practices at NOAA for the past year.  We have spoken with dozens of scientists, press officers, and managers and we are well aware of areas of needed improvement. We trust that you will take to heart the numerous suggestions that have already been made by your own employees.
GAP is currently working with the House Science Committee to ensure that NOAA brings about actual change that is consistent with its commitments and duties.  Because GAP and congressional oversight are aggressively scrutinizing new developments at NOAA, we strongly encourage you to consider our input before releasing your new policy.  Some of our main concerns are outlined below; however we welcome the opportunity to collaborate with you in a more involved fashion if you are open to that.
NOAA’s policy must memorialize the “personal views” exception
As echoed by your agency-wide memorandum, scientists must be made aware of the fact that they have a First Amendment right – as established by Pickering v. Board of Education, 561 U.S. 563 (1968) – to speak about any subject, including policy-related matters and those outside their area of expertise, so long as:
1.    Scientists make it clear that they do so in their private capacity, not as representatives of their agency.  Identifying the scientist with his or her agency, position, and area of expertise is permissible so long as the communication includes the “private capacity” disclaimer; and
2.    Scientists’ personal communications do not unreasonably take from agency time and resources.  Typically, personal use of telephone or email for 5-10 minutes is already accepted amongst employers as “paid free time.”  Longer interviews may need to be conducted during authorized breaks or after work. 
NOAA should return to the “notification and recap” protocol
For typical media interactions, mandatory pre-approval, routing, intake, anticipated Q&A, and monitoring requirements are unjustifiable restrictions on employees’ free speech rights.[1]  They introduce unnecessary delays which may prevent coverage and open protected communications up to inappropriate interference or at the least the perception thereof.  Instead, an agency’s institutional needs may be reasonably satisfied by simply requiring prior notification to the Public Affairs Office (PAO) and post-interview recap as many local PAOs have historically done to both the scientists’ and reporters’ satisfaction. 
It goes without saying that the PAO should take an active role in coordinating and facilitating media interactions, especially connecting journalists with the appropriate scientists and supplying corrections and background information.  Nonetheless, the ultimate decision about the content of and parties to any particular media communication lies with the reporter and the scientist whom the reporter requests.
NOAA should NOT emulate the shortcomings of the NASA policy

We anticipate that your agency intends to use the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) policy as a reform model.  Indeed, the NASA policy contains the necessary cornerstone of a personal views exception for government employees to speak freely as private citizens.  It also includes rhetoric supportive of scientific freedom, which can be valuable in establishing an open environment.  Unfortunately, the fine print of NASA’s policy belies the rhetoric. Our concerns are listed below:
The Whistleblower Protection Act permits NASA employees to disclose otherwise-qualified information without restriction, unless it is classified or its release is specifically prohibited by statute. 5 USC 2302(b)(8). By contrast, the NASA media policy requires prior approval for all whistleblowing disclosures that are “Sensitive but Unclassified.” (“Preventing unauthorized release of sensitive but unclassified (SBU) information,” media policy (“policy”) at 6-7) This term is equivalent to the old “For Official Use Only” category, which does not purport to meet the standards for classification, and is so broad and vague that it could be interpreted to sweep in virtually anything.  There is no legal basis to conclude that this provision lawfully can coexist with the Whistleblower Protection Act.
The Anti-Gag Statute, unanimously passed by Congress as part of every appropriations law since FY 1988, bans spending to implement or enforce any nondisclosure policy, form or agreement unless it contains a congressionally-drafted addendum that specifies the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Lloyd Lafollette Act (protecting communications with Congress) prevail and supersede any conflicting language from the agency-based restriction. The NASA media policy does not contain the congressionally-required addendum. There is no legal basis to exclude this addendum unanimously required by Congress for the last 18 fiscal years.[2]
The NASA policy bans employees’ free speech and WPA rights to engage in anonymous communications, requiring them to work with NASA officials “prior to releasing information” or “engaging in any activities or events … that have the potential to generate significant media or public interest inquiry.” [“Responsibilities,” sections (f) and (g), policy at 3; see also “Interviews,” sections (c) and (f), policy at 5]  There is no legal basis for this restriction, if the information is unclassified and its release is not specifically barred by statute.
While there is a “personal views” exception to the policy’s nondisclosure rules, it is undefined in scope and context. [“Interviews,” Section (d); policy at 5] Compared with the broadly-worded, absolute restrictions, this ambiguity could have a chilling effect. There need to be specific definitions and criteria for when the personal views exception applies. Government scientists should not have to guess.
The new NASA policy institutionalizes prior restraint censorship through “review and clearance” by appropriate officials for “all NASA employees” involved in “preparing and issuing” public information. [“Public information coordination and concurrence,” Sections (a) and (b), policy at 3-4] This means that scientists can be censored and need advance permission from the “appropriate” official before anything can be publicly released. This restriction cannot lawfully coexist with the First Amendment, the Whistleblower Protection Act, and the Anti-Gag statute?
The new policy gives NASA the power to control the timing of all disclosures [“Responsibilities,” section (i), policy at 3], which means scientists can be gagged until the information is dated. As a result the public can be deprived of timely knowledge of scientific research. There is no legal basis for this restriction, which violates both the WPA and the Anti-Gag statute. 
These restrictions all violate the First Amendment when a government scientist expresses personal views, and the statutory rights of the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Anti-Gag Statute for any speech covered by the WPA.  We hope NOAA will not make the same mistakes.
Additional considerations
We wish to emphasize that the right of government employees to communicate anonymously is a significant component of statutory protections. See the Joint Explanatory Statement for the Whistleblower Protection Act when it was initially passed with a unanimous congressional mandate. “It is unrealistic to expect whistleblowers to help in the struggle against waste if they risk exposure of their names and possible retaliation.” 135 Cong. Rec. 5033 (1989).
Finally, NOAA’s new media policy and its implementation must be coherent, transparent, and understood by your employees.  A policy that adequately incorporates employees’ and managements’ rights and responsibilities should be broadly disseminated to both through annual reports, internet sites, employment contracts, workplace posters, employee handbooks, and special trainings.
These are a few of our main recommendations.  Please refer to the model media policy in the appendix of our joint report with the Union of Concerned Scientists released at the January House Oversight Committee hearing (available at  This model media policy was developed specifically with NOAA in mind.
Thank you for your timely consideration.  Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions or concerns.  The offer to share GAP’s time and expertise on this matter is unqualified.

Thomas Devine
Legal Director
Tarek F. Maassarani
Staff Attorney
Scott Rayder
Chief of Staff, Office of the Undersecretary
U.S. Department of Commerce
USEC   EXEC Route:  A
14th Street & Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20230
FAX: (202)408-9674

Jordan St. John
Director, NOAA Office of Public, Constituent, and Intergovernmental Affairs
U.S. Department of Commerce
USEC   EXEC Route:  PA    
14th Street & Constitution Avenue, NW, Room 6217
Washington, DC 20230
FAX: (202) 219-8827

James Walpole
NOAA Office of the General Counsel
USEC   EXEC Route:  GC
Herbert C. Hoover Building
14th and Constitution Ave. NW
Washington, DC. 20230
Fax: (202) 482-4893

Carlos Gutierrez
Secretary, U.S. Department of Commerce
1401 Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20230

E. Richard Mills
Director, Office of Public Affairs
U.S. Department of Commerce
1401 Constitution Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC 20230
Fax: (202) 482-5168

John J. Sullivan
Office of General Counsel
U.S. Department of Commerce
14th & Constitution Avenue NW
Mail Stop 5875 HCHB
Washington, D.C. 20230
Fax: (202) 482-0042

William Brennan
NOAA Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Affairs
U.S. Department of Commerce
USEC   EXEC Route:  IA      
1401 Constitution Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC 20230
FAX: (202) 482-6000

[1] * Pre-Approval – When after an initial media contact, a scientist is required to get permission from public affairs before proceeding with the interview. Pre-approval applies to press releases and press conferences as well as interviews.
* Intake – When pre-approval is extended to require that even a reporter’s initial media request be made with public affairs.
* Routing – When public affairs takes media requests and in spite of the reporter’s request decides what scientists can respond and what topics may be covered.
* Anticipated Q&A – When prior to granting pre-approval, public affairs requires scientists to anticipate the reporter’s questions and the scientist’s responses.
* Monitoring – When public affairs requires an agency official to be present during the media contact either in person or over the phone.

[2] The current version can be found in SEC. 820 of the Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Act of 2006, which became PL 109-115 on November 30, 2005 and is extended through the current continuing resolution. SEC. 820. No funds appropriated in this or any other Act may be used to implement or enforce the agreements in Standard Forms 312 and 4414 of the Government or any other nondisclosure policy, form, or agreement if such policy, form, or agreement does not contain the following provisions: ‘‘These restrictions are consistent with and do not supersede, conflict with, or otherwise alter the employee obligations, rights, or liabilities created by Executive Order No. 12958; section 7211 of title 5, United States Code (governing disclosures to Congress); section 1034 of title 10, United States Code, as amended by the Military Whistleblower Protection Act (governing disclosure to Congress by members of the military); section 2302(b)(8) of title 5, United States Code, as amended by the Whistleblower Protection Act (governing disclosures of illegality, waste, fraud, abuse or public health or safety threats); the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 (50 U.S.C. 421 et seq.) (governing disclosures that could expose confidential Government agents); and the statutes which protect against disclosure that may compromise the national security, including sections 641, 793, 794, 798, and 952 of title 18, United States Code, and section 4(b) of the Subversive Activities Act of 1950 (50 U.S.C. 783(b)). The definitions, requirements, obligations, rights, sanctions, and liabilities created by said Executive order and listed statutes are incorporated into this agreement and are controlling.’’: Provided, That notwithstanding the preceding paragraph, a nondisclosure policy form or agreement that is to be executed by a person connected with the conduct of an intelligence or intelligence-related activity, other than an employee or officer of the United States Government, may contain provisions appropriate to the particular activity for which such document is to be used. Such form or agreement shall, at a minimum, require that the person will not disclose any classified information received in the course of such activity unless specifically authorized to do so by the United States Government. Such nondisclosure forms shall also make it clear that they do not bar disclosures to Congress or to an authorized official of an executive agency or the Department of Justice that are essential to reporting a substantial violation of law.

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