THE BLOG

NASA, Political Interference, and the Vindication of James Hansen

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET
  • Chris Mooney Author, 'The Republican War on Science' and 'The Republican Brain'

Yesterday I ventured to Capitol Hill to watch another episode in what is quickly becoming one of the most dramatic shows aired by the new Democratic majority: Rep. Henry Waxman's ongoing investigation of the Bush administration's political interferences with government climate science. I definitely wasn't disappointed. Reporters at the press table were buried under piles of depositions and internal administration documents. Meanwhile, the revelations were whizzing by so fast that many in the audience seemed justifiably bewildered about which technical report was being referenced, and precisely how the administration had (or hadn't) been monkeying around with its language.

To fully grasp how the Bush government has distorted climate science--which it has largely done by selectively emphasizing scientific uncertainties while downplaying mainstream scientific conclusions--you really have to get down in the weeds and sift through the details. As someone who's already spent an ungodly amount of time doing precisely that, I can plainly see from the latest hearing that there's plenty of new fodder.

But one outrage aired yesterday was both less technical and quite literally of a "smoking gun" nature--which makes it a pretty good place to start sifting.

One of the recurring charges against the Bush administration is that it has sometimes, for political reasons, blocked government-employed climate scientists from doing media interviews about their work. And in light of new evidence that emerged yesterday, there's simply no question in my mind that public affairs staff at NASA actively sought to prevent the agency's most famous climate scientist, James Hansen, from participating in a prominent media interview with National Public Radio. Hansen had previously alleged precisely this (see also his testimony yesterday), and the surprising new evidence--in the form of internal emails--makes clear that he was right to do so.

In December 2005, NPR's Boston-based program "On Point" had requested an hour long radio interview with Hansen--a government employee whose salary is paid by the taxpayer--on the subject of global warming. But the interview request got channeled from the press representative with Hansen's own institute in New York City to another public affairs officer, George Deutsch, who had previously worked on George W. Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. Deutsch soon emailed Dr. Colleen Hartman, an astrophysicist who was then the Deputy Associate Administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, saying that the interview request had been discussed "with the 9th Floor, and it was decided that we'd like you to handle this interview." As Deutsch mentioned before Congress yesterday, the "9th floor" referred to NASA's senior leadership. More specifically, in this case, the issue apparently went to NASA's then-press secretary Dean Acosta. (Deutsch's own written testimony, which mentions all of this, can be found here.)

Other emails from Deutsch, also presented and discussed at the hearing and provided to journalists on hand, further demonstrate that NASA was trying to steer this interview request away from Hansen--who had become quite vociferous in articulating his fears that we will unleash "dangerous" climate change unless we take quick action to curtail our greenhouse gas emissions, and who had already drawn the ire of NASA higher-ups for being so outspoken. As one email from Deutsch stated: "Senior management has asked us not to use Jim Hansen for this interview." Another email, discussing who would replace Hansen, was still more blunt: "Are [sic] main concern is hitting our messages and not getting dragged down into any discussions we shouldn't get into."

In testimony yesterday, Deutsch--who no longer works for NASA, having resigned early last year following the widespread airing of Hansen's allegations (as well as reports that his resume incorrectly claimed a college degree that Deutsch did not then have)--said he had been following a public affairs policy known as "right of first refusal." According to this policy as Deutsch apparently understood it, NASA superiors could elect to do media interviews in the stead of other employees (in this case, Hansen). Deutsch claimed this had been a longstanding NASA policy, but NPR's "On Point" didn't seem to appreciate such a controlling approach to interview requests. As Deutsch wrote a few days later in an email to NASA aides: "The NPR people have apparently turned their noses up at the guests we have offered them, and Headquarters does not want Dr. Hansen doing this interview tomorrow."

There are several upshots from this episode (which is just one of many troubling stories aired at yesterday's hearing). First, it seems evident not only that NASA's public affairs machine was trying to prevent Hansen from doing a prominent media interview, but that it was also offering other scientists from the agency in his stead--scientists apparently expected to present a viewpoint more consonant with the administration's desired "message." At yesterday's hearing Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland--who drew heavily upon the aforementioned emails--pointed out the obvious: This is the very definition of political interference with the communication of scientific information.

Second, as Hansen himself pointed out at the hearing as well as in his written testimony, it is rare to have an actual "paper trail," as we now do in this particular case. Political pressure upon (and interference with) government scientists can occur in a wide variety of ways, and can often leave little documented trace. So in addition to truly stark examples like the present one, it's important to bear in mind that we also have voluminous evidence, in the form of a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, that these types of problems are pervasive throughout the government in the climate change arena.

In short, add one more drop in the overflowing bucket of evidence suggesting that the Bush administration was quite consciously using PR tactics to control the "message" on global warming--rather than allowing taxpayer funded scientists, like Hansen, full access to the media. It's not an unfamiliar story by now, but it remains an outrageous one. And while NASA did thankfully change its media policy following the original airing of the Hansen-Deutsch affair, other agencies where similar problems have emerged have not yet done so.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the Bush administration's political interference with climate science, more juicy details just keep on coming.