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Context of 'September 29, 2005: Commerce Department Imposes Restrictions on Media Contact with Federal Climate Scientists in Wake of Hurricane Katrina'

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When climate scientist James Hansen gives NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe a presentation on the dangers of human-caused climate change, O’Keefe cuts him off. “The administrator interrupted me,” Hansen later says. “He told me that I should not talk about dangerous anthropogenic interference, because we do not know enough or have enough evidence for what would constitute dangerous anthropogenic interference.” (O’Keefe’s spokesperson will later deny this account of the meeting.) Hansen’s presentation to O’Keefe was a summary of another presentation, titled “Can we defuse the global warming time bomb,” that he already gave to the White House Council on Environmental Quality in June 2003. (Hansen 10/26/2004 pdf file; Revkin 10/26/2004)

Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), officially implements a new NOAA-wide media policy. The new policy, written by NOAA Public Affairs Director Jordan St. John, government lawyers, and Commerce Department policymakers, gives the NOAA’s public affairs offices ultimate authority over all agency communications. (Alexandrovna 10/4/2005; Union of Concern Scientists and Government Accountability Project 1/30/2007, pp. 31 pdf file; Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 10 pdf file) The media policy will become more restrictive after Hurricane Katrina (see September 29, 2005).

James E. Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, tells the New York Times that the Bush administration has been putting pressure on scientists to produce studies that are in line with official policy on issues like global warming. He says this practice has penetrated deep within the government bureaucracy. “Under the Clinton-Gore administration, you did have occasions when Al Gore knew the answer he wanted and he got annoyed if you presented something that wasn’t consistent with that,” he says. “I got a little fed up with him, but it was not institutionalized the way it is now.” The Times reports that Hansen, along with two other NASA scientists and several officials at NASA headquarters and at two agency research centers, has “described how news releases on new global warming studies had been revised by administrators to play down definitiveness or risks. The scientists and officials said other releases had been delayed.” (Revkin 10/19/2004)

In a speech before an audience at the University of Iowa, James E. Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says the Bush administration is suppressing evidence of global warming. He says that officials routinely dismiss such evidence on grounds that it is not of sufficient interest to the public. However, studies that suggest less alarming interpretations of climate data are treated more favorably, he says. According to Hansen, officials have also edited reports to downplay the potential effects of global warming. Hansen thinks the administration is trying to keep the public uninformed about the issue. “In my more than three decades in government, I have never seen anything approaching the degree to which information flow from scientists to the public has been screened and controlled as it is now,” he says. (Associated Press 10/26/2006)

Department of Commerce press officer Catherine Trinh rejects a request for a media interview with a climate scientist. (The identity of this scientist has not been revealed.) “Let’s pass on this one,” she says in an e-mail to an official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The official asks in response, “Can I please have a reason?” In another e-mail, Trinh again rejects a request for an interview. “Let’s pass on this… interview, but rather refer him to [redacted] of the [redacted] at [redacted],” she writes. “CEQ [White House Council of Environmental Quality] suggested him as a good person to talk on this subject.” The e-mails, obtained by Salon in 2006, reveal that requests for media interviews about climate change are being screened by officials at the Commerce Department (NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce). When asked by Salon if Commerce reviews all requests for media interviews with scientists, Richard Mills, the department’s director of public affairs, states, “I wouldn’t characterize it like that.” (Thacker 9/19/2006)

NOAA Chief Financial Officer Maureen Wylie distributes a memo to all NOAA employees applying the agency’s 2004 media policy (see June 28, 2004) to communications with Congress. From this point on, the NOAA’s public affairs office will have ultimate authority over all agency communications with Congress. (Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 45 pdf file)

National Weather Service (NWS) Regional Public Affairs Director Jim Teet sends an email to employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) informing them that all requests for contact from the national media must “now receive prior approval by” the Commerce Department. According to the memo, when a media request is made, employees must obtain the “name of the reporter and their affiliation; [t]heir deadline and contact phone number; [n]ame of individual being requested for the interview and purpose of the interview; [a]dditional background about the interview subject, and expertise of requested interviewee on this subject,” and then provide this information to the NWS press office. From there, the request shall be forwarded to the Commerce Department’s public relations office, whose staff will then decide how to handle the media request. According to an unnamed NOAA employee, “prior to this policy change, if a media organization called our office (or any other National Weather Service office) and wanted an interview, we would do our best to accommodate the request as quickly as possible. While often such requests are from local media, local offices do get requests from national media if a weather event is big enough to be a national story.” But NOAA Public Affairs Director Jordan St. John insists that “the policy has been in existence all along,” and that he had rewritten it in June 2004 (see June 28, 2004) with lawyers and Commerce Department policymakers. But NOAA employees tell the Raw Story that they had never been informed of these restrictions before, and some suggest that the timing of Teet’s email may be related to the political impact of hurricane Katrina. According to Raw Story, there is a substantial difference between the June 2004 policy and the one emailed by Teet. “[T]he emailed policy states that routine contact with national media outlets has to be pre-cleared with the Commerce Department, requiring extensive information about the journalist and media outlet [while] [t]he media policy St. John provided does not stipulate such restrictions on interacting with national media. Nor does it state that the Commerce Department must approve media requests,” Raw Story reports. (Alexandrovna 10/4/2005; Judis 2/11/2006; Union of Concern Scientists and Government Accountability Project 1/30/2007, pp. 31 pdf file)

Robert Atlas, director of Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML), issues a laboratory-wide email instructing staff to review the NOAA media policy that had been issued in June 2004 (see June 28, 2004). Atlas writes that “one important change from the current AOML policy is that Commerce Public Affairs has asked to be made aware of all media interview requests—especially those pertaining to Katrina and Rita.” (Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 16 pdf file)

Thomas Knutson, a research meteorologist with the agency’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, NJ, recieves an interview request from CNBC television for its program “On the Money.” Knutson forwards the request to NOAA public affairs officer Kent Laborde for approval, as is required by NOAA’s media policy (see September 29, 2005). Laborde then directs the request to Chuck Fuqua, deputy director of communications at the Department of Commerce, who asks: “What is Knutson’s position on global warming vs. decadal cycles? Is he consistent with [Gerry] Bell and [Chris] Landsea?” (Bell and Chris have views that are more in line with the Bush administration’s position on global warming) Laborde then calls Knutson and asks him about his views on the future trend of Atlantic hurricane activity. Laborde then writes to Fuqua, saying that “he is consistent, but a bit of a different animal. He isn’t on the meteorological side. He’s purely a numerical modeler. He takes existing data from observation and projects forward. His take is that even with worse [sic] 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.” Two minutes later Fuqua responds, “Why can’t we have one of the other guys on then?” Knutson is then informed that the interview request has been declined. (Regalado and Carlton 2/16/2006; Union of Concern Scientists and Government Accountability Project 1/30/2007, pp. 30 pdf file)

The US Department of Commerce’s deputy director of communications, Chuck Fuqua, approves a request from the media for an interview with NOAA hurricane researcher Chris Landsea. Landsea believes that global warming has little or no impact on hurricanes. Notwithstanding, Fuqua says in an email to a NOAA official, “Please be careful and make sure Chris is on his toes. Since [redacted] went off the menu, I’m a little nervous on this, but trust he’ll hold the course.” A week later, Fuqua grants a request for Landsea to appear on the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. In an email concerning the interview, Fuqua writes, “Please make sure Chris is on message and that it is a friendly discussion.” When Richard Mills, the department’s director of public affairs, is later asked by Salon what Fuqua meant by “stay on message,” Mills explains, “Chuck just meant that Chris should be ready and prepared.” (Thacker 9/19/2006)

The November issue of NOAA Magazine (a publication of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) reports, “There is consensus among NOAA hurricane researchers and forecasters that recent increases in hurricane activity are primarily the result of natural fluctuations in the tropical climate system known as the tropical multi-decadal signal.” (NOAA Magazine 11/29/2005) In December, Kerry Emanuel, a climate researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who believes that hurricanes are becoming more severe because of rising temperatures, tells a roomful of University of Rhode Island scientists that the NOAA report had censored the views of government scientists who believe there is a link between hurricane intensity and climate change. (Regalado and Carlton 2/16/2006; Lord 3/26/2006) In February, the Wall Street Journal will similarly report that despite what NOAA contended, several of the agency’s scientists “believed man-made warming was a key cause.” The day before the Journal’s report is published, the NOAA will issue a correction stating that the consensus “represents the views of some NOAA hurricane researchers and forecasters, but does not necessarily represent the views of all NOAA scientists.” (NOAA Magazine 11/29/2005; Regalado and Carlton 2/16/2006)

Officials at NASA headquarters order the agency’s public affairs office to pre-screen all public statements made by James E. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. This restriction applies to all of his forthcoming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard website, and requests for interviews from journalists. His supervisors are even authorized to stand in for him in interviews with the media. According to Hansen, the agency’s efforts to muzzle him began after a lecture he gave on December 6 in which he said that a US failure to significantly cut emissions could turn the earth into “a different planet.” He had noted in his lecture that businesses could cut emissions using existing technologies, if they wanted to, but that the administration’s and industry’s overriding concern is short term profits. A statement he released on December 15 saying that 2005 was probably the warmest year in 100 years also irked top officials (see December 15, 2005). Officials responded to Hansen’s statements with several warnings that there would be “dire consequences” if he continued. Dean Acosta, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs at the space agency, denies that NASA was trying to silence Hansen. He claims the restrictions on Hansen applied to all National Aeronautics and Space Administration personnel. All scientists are permitted to discuss scientific findings, he argues, but are not supposed to issue statements on policy. (Revkin 1/29/2006; National Public Radio 1/29/2006; Eilperin 1/29/2006) While top officials have always tried to deter scientists from speaking publicly on policy issues, Hansen, in a later interview with the New York Times, says the Bush administration is engaged in an unprecedented level of interference. “In my thirty-some years of experience in government, I’ve never seen control to the degree that is occurring now,” he says. (Revkin 1/29/2006)

James E. Hansen of the NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies posts a statement on the institute’s website saying that 2005 was the warmest year on record. “The highest global surface temperature in more than a century of instrumental data was recorded in the 2005 calendar year in the GISS annual analysis,” it says. The 2005 summation infuriates top NASA officials, who are already annoyed with Hansen because of a December 6 speech he gave criticizing the administration and industry for putting short term profits ahead of efforts to curb greenhouse gases. The officials order Hansen to remove the statement, complaining that it should have been screened by the administration before publication. (Eilperin 1/29/2006) Additionally, NASA’s public affairs office tells Hansen that there is a “storm of anger at headquarters” over his statement and past remarks (see, e.g., October 26, 2004), and threatens him with “dire consequences.” (Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 34 pdf file)

Dr. James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a top climate scientist, reveals that the Bush administration ordered NASA’s public affairs staff to review his lectures, papers, Web site postings, and interview requests after he gave a lecture calling for the reduction of greenhouse gases linked to global warming. “They feel their job is to be the censor of information going out to the public,” Hansen says, and he promises to ignore the restrictions. NASA denies trying to silence Hansen, saying the restrictions apply to all NASA officials, and adds that it is inappropriate for government scientists to make policy statements (see Between June 2003 and October 2003, (January 2006), and (Late January 2006)). (Savage 2007, pp. 106) This is not the first time Hansen has gone public about government attempts to censor and muzzle him and his fellows (see October 2004, October 26, 2004, and February 10, 2006).

NASA officials attempt to discourage Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin from interviewing James E. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, for an article she is doing about global warming. The officials say that Hansen can only speak on the record “if an agency spokeswoman listen[s] in on the conversation,” Eilperin reports. (Eilperin 1/29/2006)

James E. Hansen, speaking before an audience at the New School university in New York, says that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) wants to implement a new rule requiring that minders be present for any media interviews with its scientists. “It seems more like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union than the United States,” he says. Hansen caused a stir in late January when he accused Bush administration officials of suppressing information on global warming and placing restrictions on his communications with the media (see After December 6, 2005). The officials were upset about a speech he had given on December 6, in which he said that commitments to short term profits were taking precedence over curbing greenhouse gases. He repeats this statement in his remarks during the panel discussion at New School. (Hansen 2/10/2006 pdf file; Eilperin 2/11/2006) In his presentation, Hansen also says that the administration is misleading the public about the potential links between global warming and hurricane intensity. He makes the charge that the “public, by fiat, received biased information” when “the NOAA took an official position that global warming was not the cause of hurricane intensification” (see November 29, 2005- December 2005). (Hansen 2/10/2006 pdf file)

Warren Washington, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, accuses the Bush administration of suppressing climate change data, limiting journalists’ access to government scientists, and rewriting news releases on global climate change. According to Washington, Bush administration officials are “trying to confuse the public.” He says these tactics are taking place at numerous federal agencies, including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA ), and the US Forest Service. NOAA spokesman Jordan St. John denies the allegations. “NOAA is an open and transparent agency,” he says. “It’s unfair to the people who work at this agency that this kind of characterization keeps being made. Hansen said it once (see After December 6, 2005), and it took on a life of its own and just keeps getting repeated.” (Erickson 6/8/2006)

A group of 14 Democratic lawmakers, led by Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, sends a letter to the inspector generals of both the Commerce Department and NASA requesting formal investigations into allegations that Bush administration political appointees suppressed evidence linking global warming to increased hurricane intensity (see 2005, October 16, 2005, October 19, 2005, and November 29, 2005- December 2005). (Office of Senator Frank Lautenberg 9/29/2006; Heilprin 11/2/2006)

Officials at NASA and the Department of Commerce confirm that the inspectors general of both agencies have begun investigations into whether the White House has sought to prevent government climate scientist from conveying their findings to the public. The investigations were prompted by a request from 14 Democratic senators in late September (see September 29, 2006). The inquiries are expected to be completed by early 2007. (Eilperin 11/2/2006)

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