Climate change in Vanity Fair’s Oral History of the Bush White House


“Farewell to All That: An Oral History of the Bush White House,” in the February 2009 issue of Vanity Fair, is a 20,000-word article that draws on interviews with more than 40 individuals, including Climate Science Watch director Rick Piltz.

Post by Rick Piltz

The oral history is a cover story in the issue just out, and is also posted on the Vanity Fair web site.  I recommend reading the whole wide-ranging piece, which brings together many voices.  It begins: 

Farewell to All That: An Oral History of the Bush White House

by Cullen Murphy and Todd S. Purdum

The threat of 9/11 ignored.  The threat of Iraq hyped and manipulated.  Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. Hurricane Katrina.  The shredding of civil liberties. The rise of Iran.  Global warming. Economic disaster.  How did one two-term presidency go so wrong?  A sweeping draft of history—distilled from scores of interviews—offers fresh insight into the roles of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and other key players.

Those interviewed include:

Dan Bartlett (WH Comm. Director, later Counselor to the President)
Joschka Fischer (German Foreign Minister/Vice-Chancellor)
Lawrence Wilkerson (Top aide, later COS to SOS Colin Powell)
Richard Clarke (Chief WH Counterterrorism Adviser)
Bill Graham (Canada’s Foreign Minister, later Defense Minister)
Rick Piltz (Sr. Associate, U.S. Climate Change Science Program)
David Kuo (Dep. Director of WH Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives)
Noelia Rodriguez (Press Secretary to Laura Bush)
Mark McKinnon (Chief Campaign Media Adviser to George W. Bush)
Matthew Dowd (Bush’s Pollster & Chief Strategist 2004 presidential campaign)
Ari Fleischer (Bush’s first WH Press Secretary)
Ed Gillespie (Campaign Strategist, later Counselor to President)
Sandra Kay Daniels (Teacher at Emma E. Booker Elementary School on 9/11)
Mary Matalin (Assist to President & Counselor to VP)
Michael Brown (Director of the FEMA)
Scott McClellan (Deputy WH Press Sec., later Press Sec.)
Jesselyn Radack (Ethics Adviser at DOJ)
Robert Dallek (Presidential Biographer)
John Bellinger III (Legal Adviser NSC, later Legal Adviser to SOS)
Gary Berntsen (C.I.A. Intelligence Commander at Tora Bora)
Margaret Spellings (Bush’s Domestic-Policy Adv., later SOE)
Jack Goldsmith (Legal Adviser DOD, later head of the Justice Dept. OLC)
Bob Graham (Senator Florida (Dem), Chairman of the Senate Intel Committee)
Luis Moreno-Ocampo (Prosecutor of the Int’l Criminal Court)
Paul Pillar (C.I.A. Nat’l Intel Officer for the Near East & South Asia)
Sir Jeremy Greenstock (British Ambassador to UN, later the British Special Rep. in Iraq)
Hans Blix (Chief U.N. Weapons Inspector for Iraq)
Alberto Mora (Navy General Counsel)
Jay Garner (Ret. Army General & 1st overseer of the U.S. Admin. and Reconstruction of Iraq)
Kenneth Adelman (Member of Rumsfeld’s Advisory Defense Policy Board)
Charles Duelfer (U.N. and U.S. Weapons Inspector in Iraq)
Michael Merson, M.D. (Int’l Aids Researcher, evaluated relief program)
Lee Hamilton (Former Indiana Congressman and Vice-Chair of the 9/11 Commission)
Kishore Mahbubani (Singapore’s Former Ambassador to U.N.)
John le Carré (Novelist and former Intelligence Officer)
Anthony Cordesman (Nat’l-Security Analyst, former official at the Defense and State Depts)
Alan K. Simpson (former Senator from Wyoming, member of the Iraq Study Group)
David Iglesias (Former U.S. attorney in New Mexico)
Robert Shiller (Yale economist who warned of a housing bubble)
John C. Dugan (Comptroller of the currency)
Henry Paulson (Secretary of the Treasury)
Jake Boritt (Filmmaker and Gettysburg tour guide)

(Thanks to goodasgold for the list.)

The article, which proceeds in more or less chronological order, intersperses the following material from my interview with editor Cullen Murphy:

May 16, 2001 A task force assembled and led by Vice President Dick Cheney unveils a blueprint for the administration’s energy program. The report, “National Energy Policy,” which had been in the works since shortly after the inauguration, calls for increased drilling for oil and more nuclear power. The energy task force becomes an immediate focus of controversy—and lawsuits—because its records and the list of advisers, mainly representatives of the oil and gas industries, are never divulged by the White House. The administration’s environmental policy is heavily politicized from the outset.

Rick Piltz, senior associate, U.S. Climate Change Science Program: Christine Todd Whitman, the E.P.A. administrator, was one of several people in the Cabinet, along with Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who strongly supported a proactive position on climate change. And she was, I think, in Europe telling European governments that the U.S. position was to regulate carbon dioxide. And when she got back home, she had an interaction with the president in which she was very brusquely told that that was off the table. The turning point, essentially, was that Cheney grabbed hold of this issue and took down the whole notion of regulating CO2.

February 14, 2002 The Bush administration proposes a Clear Skies Initiative, which relaxes air-quality and emissions standards. This is followed by a Healthy Forests Initiative, which opens up national forests to increased logging. Climate change becomes a forbidden subject.

Rick Piltz, senior associate, U.S. Climate Change Science Program: At the beginning of the Bush administration, Ari Patrinos, a very senior science official who had run the Department of Energy’s climate-change research program for many years, and a half-dozen high-ranking federal science officials were brought together and told to explain the science and help develop policy options for a proactive climate-change policy for the administration. They moved into an office downtown, and they worked very hard and were briefing at the Cabinet level, in the White House. Cheney was there, Colin Powell was there, Commerce Secretary [Don] Evans was there. They were making the case on climate change.

And one day they were told: Take it down, pack it up, go back to your offices—we don’t need you anymore.

June 7, 2005 Documents emerge indicating that the decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, in 2001, was influenced by the Global Climate Coalition, an industry group with ties to Exxon. One State Department letter to the coalition states: “Potus [president of the United States] rejected Kyoto in part based on input from you.” Several days later, Philip Cooney, a former American Petroleum Institute lobbyist and the chief of staff of the president’s Council on Environmental Quality, resigns after it is revealed that he had edited government reports to downplay the threat of climate change. Cooney takes a job at Exxon.

Rick Piltz, senior associate, U.S. Climate Change Science Program: In the fall of 2002, I was doing something I’d been doing for years, which was developing and editing the [Climate Change Science Program’s] annual report to Congress. And it had been drafted with input from dozens of federal scientists and reviewed and vetted and revised and vetted some more.
And then it had to go for a White House clearance. It came back to us over the fax machine with Phil Cooney’s hand markup on it. I flipped through it and saw right away what he was doing. You don’t need to do a huge amount of re-writing to make something say something different; you just need to change a word, change a phrase, cross out a sentence, add some adjectives. And what he was doing was, he was passing a screen over the report to introduce uncertainty language into statements about global warming. The political motivation of it was obvious.

December 6, 2005 NASA scientist James Hansen gives a lecture on climate change at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, in San Francisco. NASA reacts by ordering his future public statements to be vetted in advance. Earlier in the year Rick Piltz had resigned from the Climate Change Science Program over other instances of political interference.

Rick Piltz, senior associate, U.S. Climate Change Science Program: To me, the central climate-science scandal of the Bush administration was the suppression of the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts report. In the 1997–2000 time frame, the White House had directed the Global Change Research Program to develop a scientifically based assessment of the implications of climate change for the United States. It was a vulnerability assessment: If these projected warming models are correct, what’s going to happen? And over a period of several years a team made up of eminent scientists and other experts produced a major report. To this day, it remains the most comprehensive effort to understand the implications of global warming for the United States.

And the administration killed that study. They directed federal agencies not to make any reference to the existence of it in any further reports. Through a series of deletions it was completely excised from all program reports from 2002 onward. It was left up on a Web site. There was a lawsuit filed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is an ExxonMobil-funded “denialist” group, demanding that the report be deleted from the Web. Myron Ebell of the institute said, Our goal is to make that report vanish.

I also note the following, from an interview with Jesselyn Radack, currently my colleague at the Government Accountability Project:

October 7, 2001 American and British forces begin an aerial campaign against Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda has its base, followed weeks later by a ground invasion. The Taliban government falls and al-Qaeda is routed from some of its strongholds. One person captured is John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban. His handling proves to be a harbinger. The Defense Department’s general counsel, Jim Haynes, authorizes military intelligence to “take the gloves off.”

Jesselyn Radack, ethics adviser at the Department of Justice: I was called with the specific question of whether or not the F.B.I. on the ground could interrogate [Lindh] without counsel. And I had been told unambiguously that Lindh’s parents had retained counsel for him. I gave that advice on a Friday, and the same attorney at Justice who inquired called back on Monday and said essentially, Oops, they did it anyway. They interrogated him anyway. What should we do now? My office was there to help correct mistakes. And I said, Well, this is an unethical interrogation, so you should seal it off and use it only for intelligence-gathering purposes or national security, but not for criminal prosecution.

A few weeks later, Attorney General Ashcroft held one of his dramatic press conferences, in which he announced a complaint being filed against Lindh. He was asked if Lindh had been permitted counsel. And he said, in effect, To our knowledge, the subject has not requested counsel. That was just completely false. About two weeks after that he held another press conference, because this was the first high-profile terrorism prosecution after 9/11. And in that press conference he was asked again about Lindh’s rights, and he said that Lindh’s rights had been carefully, scrupulously guarded, which, again, was contrary to the facts, and contrary to the picture that was circulating around the world of Lindh blindfolded, gagged, naked, bound to a board.

October 26, 2001 Bush signs the USA Patriot Act, which among other things gives the government far-reaching powers to conduct surveillance. In addition, Bush will issue a secret executive order authorizing the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless wiretaps on American citizens and others living in the United States, bypassing the procedures mandated by Congress.

Jesselyn Radack, ethics adviser at the Department of Justice: When Ashcroft initially came on board as attorney general, he was a somewhat beleaguered person. He had just lost an election to a dead man [Mel Carnahan, his opponent in the Missouri senatorial race, who had been killed in a plane crash]. We were told that he liked to conduct things more in a top-down corporate manner, rather than with Janet Reno’s glasnost openness. The real shift came after 9/11. It wasn’t that we were sent a memo saying all the laws were out the window, but that was definitely the tone that pervaded the department.

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