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FYI Number 42: April 20, 2007

Continuing Controversy Surrounding Administration Information Policy

The controversy over the Bush Administration's policies on the dissemination of information to the public on scientific issues, most notably climate change, continues. A series of congressional hearings this year have highlighted the importance of perspective in determining whether Administration actions have been harmful to the public interest, or a reflection of normal government process and policy.

Two March 19 documents of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) provide background. The first, a Memorandum to the Democratic Members of the committee by the Majority Staff, states: "The CEQ [Council on Environmental Quality] documents appear to portray a systemic White House effort to minimize the significance of climate change." The nine-page memorandum describes "extensive edits" to Administration documents on global warming to emphasize scientific uncertainty about climate change and the role of human activity. The second document is Chairman Waxman's opening statement at a hearing: "It is too early in this investigation to draw firm conclusions about the White House's conduct."

Concerns about the Administration's policies predate this Congress. More than a year ago, then House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), then Ranking Member (and now chairman) Bart Gordon (D-TN) and senators raised concerns about NASA's information dissemination policies (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/036.html .) The House Government Reform Committee, when it was chaired by Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), held hearings on the Administration's information policies. After considerable criticism, NASA instituted a new media policy last year that has received generally favorable reviews as a model that other agencies should follow.

In the early days of this new Congress, Chairman Waxman convened the first hearing of his committee on "Allegations of Political Interference with the Work of Government Climate Change Scientists." Saying "I don't want politically correct science. I want the best science possible," Waxman described "allegations that the research of respected climate scientists was being distorted and suppressed by the Bush Administration." Waxman spoke of repeated difficulties that the committee had in obtaining internal CEQ documents on climate change. In his remarks, Davis spoke of being "disappointed in the lackluster production of those documents," earlier saying, "Like you, I think it's important to determine whether the Bush Administration or anyone else has attempted to quash scientific findings." The committee took testimony from current and previous government employees who described attempts by the Administration to edit wording in government reports, a witness who testified about a survey of government employees, and a witness who spoke more generally of the interrelationship between politics and science. (See http://oversight.house.gov/story.asp?ID=1162 for the witness list and testimony.) This hearing lasted more than 3 ½ hours, marked by sometimes frank exchanges between the witnesses and committee members.

About three weeks after this hearing, committee staff and the CEQ negotiated an agreement to provide the committee with some of the requested climate change documents. On March 19, the committee held a second hearing which featured James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, two past and current senior CEQ officials, a former NASA public affairs' officer, and Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama. The dynamics of this hearing were interesting, as Hansen and George Deutsch, the NASA public affairs' officer who managed Hansen's public statements, were at the same witness table. Philip Cooney, the former CEQ chief of staff, and CEQ Chairman James Connaughton were forceful in their defense of the propriety of their actions.

Waxman opened this hearing by saying that after reviewing the requested CEQ documents that "it suggests there may have been a concerted effort directed by the White House to mislead the public about the dangers of global climate change." "Our goal in this investigation is to understand what role the White House actually played. It would be a serious abuse if senior White House officials deliberately tried to defuse calls for action by ensuring that the public heard a distorted message about the risks of climate change." In his opening remarks, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) began by saying "I believe that climate change is happening," and then added: "Yet it remains the prerogative of the Bush Administration - as with every Administration before it and, likely, after it - to establish policies to ensure that whatever is coming out of Federal agencies is consistent and coordinated. Submitting to those rules is a fact of life for every Federal employee."

Cooney and Connaughton contended their edits were made to Administration policy and budget documents, and not scientific reports. When told that the effect of their edits - numbering in the hundreds - was to inject uncertainty in these documents, they countered by citing reports, such as one issued by the National Academies in 2001, that identified uncertainties requiring further study. In addition, they said that such reviews were part of the normal interagency process, and that all Climate Change Science Program documents were reviewed by Dr. James Mahoney, CSSP Director and Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere at the Department of Commerce. Committee members critical of these actions charged that the effect of these edits were to overemphasize uncertainties.

Hansen described what he called "a growth of political interference" in climate change research. He questioned why the White House needed to review his testimony, and criticized political appointees serving as public affairs officers. Hansen also criticized cuts to the NASA Earth Science Research and Analysis budget, calling it "a going out of business level of funding." Deutsch responded by saying "I never censored Dr. Hansen," and spoke of the importance of following agency guidelines. Some committee members disagreed, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) calling it the "political minding of an expert."

This issue appears to be far from resolved. In late March, the House Science Committee held another hearing on federal agency media policy. A new Department of Commerce policy was called "a step forward" at this hearing, with reservations being voiced about some aspects of the policy. Chairman Gordon and Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC) have written to twelve federal agencies asking them about the extent to which their agencies have adopted a policy similar to that of NASA.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3095

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