NASA internal investigation of climate science political interference let higher-ups off the hook

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An investigative report by the NASA Inspector General released June 2 validates charges that White House political appointees in the NASA Public Affairs office were engaged in censoring climate science communication, but whitewashes the complicity of higher-ups at NASA Headquarters in the attempt to censor James Hansen. We told Climate Wire the report also gave top NASA officials too much credit for their response to the censorship claims after the fact.  But we give the report, which took 20 months to produce, credit for documenting and validating the conclusion “that during the fall of 2004 through early 2006, the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public.”

On June 2 the NASA Inspector General issued a 48-page report that verified that political operatives in the agency’s Public Affairs office engaged in a systematic effort to water down and suppress key scientific findings regarding climate change. 

See the New York Times coverage here and Washington Post coverage here

Climate Wire reported (excerpt) (by subscription):

NASA: Agency watchdog alleges pattern of distorted climate science
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Lauren Morello, ClimateWire reporter

NASA “reduced, marginalized and mischaracterized” climate change science between fall 2004 and early 2006, according to a report released yesterday by the agency’s inspector general.

The analysis comes more than two years after NASA climatologist James Hansen went public with claims that agency political appointees blocked him from speaking to the press, allegations later echoed by other agency scientists and confirmed by the new report….

Press information underwent ‘heavy-handed’ review

[T]he new report describes a pattern of interference by political appointees in the agency’s press office who instituted an “extremely onerous, stressful and heavy-handed” review process for all press releases, media advisories and reports that mentioned climate change between fall 2004 and spring 2006.

Federal researchers and career public affairs officers told the inspector general’s office they believed their work was “compromised for political advantage, especially when it conflicted with the administration’s policies or priorities,” the report notes.

That situation has changed thanks to action by top NASA officials, the report added. “Clearly, they come to some fairly strong conclusions that are along the lines of the conclusions we had already come to that NASA headquarters public affairs office had interfered politically with climate science information,” said Rick Piltz, director of Climate Science Watch, a nonprofit group that keeps tabs on how government officials use climate research in policy decisions. “There were a variety of means by which they did that, but they basically discouraged honest communication.”

Piltz, a former federal employee who resigned in protest of what he said were improper White House edits of government climate documents, said he believed the inspector general’s report gave top NASA officials too much credit for their response to the censorship claims. “They were getting grief from the Hill,” he said. “Jim Hansen was in the New York Times—and then they took action.”

From the Executive Summary of the NASA IG report:

National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Office of Inspector General

Investigative Summary
Regarding Allegations that NASA Suppressed Climate Change Science and Denied Media Access to Dr. James E. Hansen, a NASA Scientist

June 2, 2008

Executive Summary. On September 29, 2006, 14 United States Senators cosigned a letter to the NASA Inspector General to request a formal investigation into allegations of “political interference” with the work of scientists at NASA. In particular, the letter conveyed the Senators’ concern with apparent and “repeated instances of scientists . . . having publication of their research and access to the media blocked, solely based upon their views and conclusions regarding the reality and impacts of global warming.” The letter also identified areas of specific concern coupled with a request for this Office “to conduct a full and thorough investigation into the suppression of science and censorship of scientists at [NASA].”

Accordingly, the NASA Office of Inspector General conducted an administrative investigation to examine reports of alleged “political interference,” predominantly by senior NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs officials, with the work of NASA scientists pertaining to climate change—to include whether NASA inappropriately prevented one of its scientists, Dr. James E. Hansen, from speaking to the media in December 2005.

Our investigation found that during the fall of 2004 through early 2006, the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public through those particular media over which the Office of Public Affairs had control (i.e., news releases and media access). We also concluded that the climate change editorial decisions were localized within the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs; we found no credible evidence suggesting that senior NASA or Administration officials directed the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs to minimize information relating to climate change. To the contrary, we found that once NASA leadership within the Office of the Administrator were made aware of the scope of the conflict between the Office of Public Affairs and scientists working on climate change, they aggressively implemented new policies with a view toward improved processes in editorial decision-making relating to scientific public affairs matters….

The supporting evidence detailed in this report reveals that climate change scientists and the majority of career Public Affairs Officers strongly believe that the alleged actions taken by senior NASA Headquarters Public Affairs officials intended to systemically portray NASA in a light most favorable to Administration policies at the expense of reporting unfiltered research results.

Pages 32-41 of the NASA IG report focus on Allegations and Instances of Improper Denial of Media Access. This section parallels material covered in the first two chapters of Mark Bowen’s book, Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming (Dutton, 2008). A comparison of the two texts reveals some key differences in facts and emphasis. Also, see the informative June 3 post by Mark Bowen on his Tipping Points blog – “NASA Office of Inspector General finally releases report.”

The NASA IG report attributes all culpability for the attempt to control Jim Hansen’s ability to speak publicly, to respond to reporters’ questions, or to post on his lab’s web site to the NASA Headquarters Public Affairs office. The key political hit men in that office who have been implicated in undermining the integrity of NASA’s climate science communication – Dean Acosta, David Mould, and Glenn Mahone (plus the 20-something George Deutsch, a right-wing junior operative who ended up taking the fall for his bosses) – were all administration political appointees. They were in that office fundamentally to police communications on behalf of a White House political agenda, not to support science or to uphold the professionalism of public affairs work.

Bowen notes that there was communication between the White House and NASA Headquarters about the Hansen problem. The documentary trail of the White House-NASA connection on this may be thin to nonexistent, but it is an important connection to pursue. (For example, documents obtained by investigators showed that White House Council on Environmental Quality Chief of Staff Phil Cooney communicated with Vice President Cheney’s office and with Karl Rove on matters of spinning climate science. Cooney was out of the picture by the time the Hansen muzzling episode blew up, but what exactly was the connection between NASA and the White House on climate science communication during the 2004-2006 period under investigation in the report?

See Mark Bowen’s blog post for further discussion of the matter of White House political interference and the link with NASA.

Bowen’s book presents information from NASA sources that clearly implicate high-level NASA Headquarters officials – in particular, Mary Cleave, the head of the NASA Science Mission Directorate – in an agreement to take steps to rein in Hansen’s ability to respond to journalists’ inquiries. The IG’s report (pp. 39-40) appears to take Cleave’s disclaimer at face value, but Bowen’s book seems more convincing that Cleave was involved, not explicitly in promoting science censorship, but more likely in terms of accommodating perceived political pressure from above.

Bowen’s blog post has this about NASA Administrator Griffin’s role in the events:

As the drama unfolded in the early months of 2006, NASA administrator Michael Griffin and his senior staff managed to direct attention away from themselves by scapegoating an admittedly overzealous bit player, 24-year-old George Deutsch. …

Basically, the Inspector General’s report goes about as far as it can toward saying that Mould and Acosta were lying and continue to lie – and, furthermore, that they lied to Congress.

As I point out in the book (p. 88-97), NASA administrator Michael Griffin was involved in lengthy discussions with Mould, Acosta, and others on December 15th about what many referred to as the “shit storm” that transpired at headquarters that day. It appears that at least three calls from the White House were involved – and that one of these calls was to Griffin himself. Although he did take action six weeks later, after Jim Hansen took the censorship public, issuing a statement of openness that gradually worked a major transformation in his agency, Griffin continues to swallow the evident lies of Dean Acosta and David Mould – lock, stock, and barrel. He was less than straightforward with me (Censoring Science, p. 88) about his involvement in the events of the fifteenth. Fundamentally, Griffin has always supported Mould and Acosta’s version of the story, he has defended them personally all along, and he has joined them in questioning Jim Hansen’s veracity.

One can’t help wondering why?

I put this question to Dr. Griffin directly: How do you justify keeping David Mould on as your senior public affairs official in the face of this new, damning evidence?

Finally, Bowen has this on Robert Cobb, the NASA IG:

As Andy Revkin of the New York Times reported today on his blog, Dot Earth, I am pleasantly surprised at the quality of the report….But let’s not get carried away: as I wrote on pages 180-81 of the book, one’s expectations would tend to be low. Robert Cobb, the Inspector General, has a long history of protecting the higher-ups at NASA and was even at one time (oxymoronically) ethics advisor to Alberto Gonzales, George W. Bush’s disgraced ex-attorney general. So I expected a complete white-wash. This one is only partial.

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