House Oversight Committee report contradicts NOAA Administrator Lautenbacher’s testimony

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On 16 February 2006, the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., was asked in a Senate Hearing whether there was White House censorship of communication by NOAA scientists. Lautenbacher responded that he was "not aware that there is any truth to that at all," that he had "never seen anybody to be able to muzzle a scientist," that scientists say "whatever they want to say," and that "we don’t interfere with the ability of our scientists to discuss their peer reviewed science." His statement is contradicted by a report issued on Monday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Congress should question Admiral Lautenbacher under oath about the discrepancies between his testimony on 16 February 2006 and the facts disclosed by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

On 16 February 2006, Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., U.S. Navy (Ret.) (Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator), appeared before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in a hearing on the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2007 budget request for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The questions asked by Co-Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Lautenbacher’s responses are worth revisiting in light of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s proposed report on the results of a 16-month investigation of allegations of political interference with government climate change science under the Bush Administration.

Inouye: “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 their any truth to that?

Lautenbacher: “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. I’ve 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 don’t 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.”

Inouye: “Is there any truth to the suggestion that the White House may be censuring scientists from your shop?”

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 — let’s put it that way. And they talk. That is just not our policy. We don’t do that.”

Yet this is what the House report says:

CEQ [White House Council on Environmental Quality] routinely controlled which climate scientists at the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) could speak with the media. The White House and
the Department of Commerce used this control to steer journalists towards scientists that
did not believe that there was a link between climate change and increased hurricane
intensity.
CEQ documents and a transcribed interview with Kent Laborde, a career public affairs
officer at NOAA, demonstrate that all media requests to interview NOAA climate
scientists were sent to CEQ for approval.

Mr. Laborde explained to Committee staff: “I would have to route media inquiries
through CEQ. That didn’t change after Katrina, and it only recently ended.” He also stated: “at the time all of these things, particularly sensitive issues were vetted or were
routed through CEQ to get their approval.” According to Mr. Laborde, climate change
was considered a high profile issue and “[a]nything that was very high profile, anything
that related to policy, anything that particularly related to a current policy debate or
policy deliberation” had to be routed through CEQ for approval. In fact, climate change
was apparently the only issue that fell into this category. When asked whether interview
requests related to any other issues required CEQ approval, Mr. Laborde responded:
“Besides climate? No. Not that I personally dealt with.” Mr. Laborde said that Jordan
St. John, the director of the NOAA communications office, “instructed me that I should
check with CEQ.” Over time, “it just became a kind of tacit understanding” that all
such requests must be sent to CEQ. Press releases related to climate change would also
be sent to the Department of Commerce communications office for approval and then to
the White House “for their awareness.”

During his deposition, former CEQ Chief of Staff Phil Cooney confirmed that CEQ was
directly involved in screening press requests to interview government scientists. He
testified: “Our communications people would render a view as to whether someone
should give an interview or not or who it should be.” He also testified: “I was — may
have been involved.”

Evidence obtained by the Committee shows that public affairs officers knew that climate
change was a politically sensitive issue for the Administration. For example, on
September 22, 2005, Scott Smullen, the deputy director of the NOAA public affairs
office, e-mailed Mr. Laborde about a press request to interview Dr. Richard Reynold
regarding warming of the Gulf of Mexico and its causes. In his e-mail, Mr. Smullen
stated that the interview “is cleared, with the caveat that we tell richard to be very careful
with how he frames the global warming signal aspect. sensitivities there, as you know.”
During his interview, Mr. Laborde confirmed “there was an ambient awareness that this
has a greater level of sensitivity than any of our other issues.” He stated: “I can’t say
exactly where it came from, but there was an elevated awareness when people were
talking about climate that a lot of what they would be saying is scrutinized.” He
explained: “Any time that there was a scientific underpinning for a certain policy that people were afraid that — were leery that maybe the science would lean into some sort of
policy outcome. … It was public affairs leadership. It was NOAA leadership. It was
Department of Commerce leadership.”

Mr. Laborde confirmed that CEQ was the ultimate decision-maker on whether an
interview request would be granted. When asked whether an interview would take place
if CEQ disapproved, Mr. Laborde answered: “No, it would not have gone forward.”
He explained: “they would give either the green light or otherwise.” He also confirmed
that the Department of Commerce could veto any media request; if the Department
“disapproved a request then that interview wouldn’t happen.”

Mr. Laborde and his career colleagues in the NOAA public affairs office did not believe
that the White House’s role was appropriate. When asked “Did you personally think it
was appropriate for the White House to decide whether a government scientist could
speak with the press,” he responded “No.” And when asked whether other career
officials in his office agreed with him, he stated: “They felt the same way.”

White House control of press access to government climate scientists went beyond
approving or rejecting interview requests. Michele St. Martin, Associate Director of
Communications at CEQ, required Mr. Laborde to provide written summaries of
interviews that were approved. In a June 13, 2005, e-mail, Mr. Laborde told another
NOAA official: “Michele wants me to monitor the call and report back to her when it’s
done.” He explained to Committee staff that she “pretty often” instructed him to
produce “a summary of an interview that was done.” When a reporter from the New
York Times requested an interview with Dr. James Mahoney, Director of the Climate
Change Science Program, in August 2005, Ms. St. Martin approved the interview, but
instructed Mr. Laborde: “Give me a wrap up of the interview and how you think it
went.” In response questions about this practice, Mr. Laborde told Committee staff:
“Yes, it happened more than once.”

The Department of Commerce also instructed NOAA public affairs officers to “carry
specific instructions about messages to our scientists.” In an October 18, 2005, e-mail
to Mr. Laborde regarding a request for Dr. Christopher Landsea to appear on the
NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Chuck Fuqua, deputy director of communications at the Department of Commerce, told Mr. Laborde: “make sure Chris is on message.” Mr.
Fuqua had been the Director of Media Operations for the 2004 Republican National
Convention. When asked by Committee staff whether he believed it was appropriate
for public affairs officers to tell scientists what they should and should not say when
speaking with the press, Mr. Laborde stated: “It’s inappropriate if it’s related to their
subject matter or their science because they are the experts on this. We’re not.”

After Hurricane Katrina, there was a concerted effort by the White House and
Department of Commerce to direct media inquiries to scientists who did not think climate
change was linked to increased hurricane intensity.

For example, in October 2005, NOAA received a request from the CNBC show On the
Money for Dr. Tom Knutson to appear and discuss whether global warming is
contributing to the number or intensity of hurricanes. In an October 19, 2005, e-mail,
Chuck Fuqua of the Department of Commerce asked Mr. Laborde: “what is Knutson’s
position on global warming vs. decadal cycles? Is he consistent with Bell and
Landsea?” Dr. Bell and Dr. Landsea believed that the recent intensification of
hurricanes was the result of natural variability. Mr. Laborde responded: “He is
consistent, but a bit of a different animal. … His take is that even with worse case
projections of green house gas concentrations, there will be a very small increase in
hurricane intensity that won’t be realized until almost 100 years from now.” In his
reply e-mail, Mr. Fuqua stated: “why can’t we have one of the other guys on then?”
Mr. Laborde explained that “Bell is unavailable because of other commitments and
Landsea is busy at the hurricane center with Wilma.”

Chuck Fuqua then sent an e-mail to Katie Levinson, the Director of White House
Television Operations, and Michele St. Martin at CEQ. Mr. Fuqua wrote:

My understanding is that Knutson has been approved by CEQ for interviews on
this topic in the past. He is a modeler and comes from a bit of a different angle,
but is apparently consistent with Dr. Bell and Chris Landsea who represent the
position that we are in a decadal cycle and that warming is not the cause of
increased hurricane activity. Bell and Landsea are not available for this and I’ve
pressed NOAA to make sure he’s consistant [sic] with the views represented, and
am assured he is.

In the next e-mail, Katie Levinson responded by asking: “Do we really want to be having
this debate on a day when a Cat 5 is about to hit? Seems to me we would want our guys
out talking about preparations for the storm.” In a subsequent e-mail she wrote: “Focus
should be on this hurricane not academic debate in my opinion.” Mr. Fuqua agreed,
stating: “I’ll take that tact during the hurricane.”

After the e-mail discussion with the White House, Mr. Fuqua instructed Mr. Laborde to
contact On the Money. Mr. Laborde told Committee staff: “the response was tell them
that we’re busy with an active hurricane right now and we don’t have time to talk about
science right now.” When asked by Committee staff whether that was an accurate
statement, Mr. Laborde answered: “I didn’t feel so, no.” In response to the question
“Had Dr. Bell or Dr. Landsea been available, do you think he would have said, don’t send
them, we’re too busy,” Mr. Laborde said: “No.”

During his interview, Mr. Laborde explained: “I think that the intention was to show a
unified position on opinion from within the agency on what’s driving hurricanes.” Mr.
Fuqua wanted a unified position “on the scientific question” even though “[t]here was not
a scientific consensus necessarily.” When asked why Mr. Fuqua wanted Dr. Bell or Dr.
Landsea to appear on the program instead of Dr. Knutson, Mr. Laborde told Committee
staff: “it’s probably because he wanted a consistent message coming from the agency.”

Mr. Laborde’s understanding is confirmed by e-mails between the White House and
Chuck Fuqua regarding other media requests from September 2005. The Today Show
requested Dr. Gerry Bell “to discuss if there is a link between hurricanes and global
warming.” Ms. Levinson responded: “Not sure this is a good idea. Gets into Al Gore
statement/politics of global warming.” Dana Perino, then White House Deputy Press
Secretary, interjected: “Problem is we need people to be pushing back on his statements
— especially when the facts are on our side. If you don’t want a fed gov scientist on, can
NOAA suggest a surrogate?” Michele St. Martin added: “We should be out there with
our statement that says no connection … it is accurate and 90% of scientists agree.” Despite the absence of an actual scientific consensus on the link between hurricane
intensity and global warming, White House and Commerce Department officials were intent on selectively providing media access to government scientists who would deny
the existence of such a link.

These were not isolated occurrences. According to Mr. Laborde: “There was a
preference for which scientists would respond to inquiries.” When asked “Did the
White House and the Department of Commerce not want scientists who believed that
climate change was increasing hurricane activity talking with the press,” he responded:
“I’ve never heard that expressly stated. … There was a consistent approach that might
have indicated that.” Mr. Laborde was also asked to assess the accuracy of Rick Piltz’s
statement that “NOAA’s actions are often subtle but they reflect a pervasive pattern of
deflecting the public’s attention and manipulating the way science is presented to the
public.” Mr. Laborde stated: “I would say that there is some truth in that. … I would say
that there was an influence that was exerted over who could speak.”

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