NASA Office of Inspector General finally releases report

Lo and behold, only two-and-a-half years after the fact, the NASA Office of Inspector General has released a report on the campaign of censorship that took place at the space agency from at least 2003 through early 2006, when Jim Hansen took it public and brought it swiftly to an end. Is it surprising that it took an entire government office, comprising many people and holding the authority to obtain documents and interview government employees — not to mention its rather large budget — twice as long to publish its report as it took me, working alone a few states away, to write and publish a book (Censoring Science) on the same subject? Not to me – although I am gratified that the OIG corroborates many of my findings and adds new, important details about what was arguably the most bare-knuckled of the many censorship incidents at NASA, which was directed at Jim specifically and began with a phone call late on the day of December 15, 2005.

Today, I will talk mostly about the big picture of this report. In coming days, I might like to look more closely at some of the details.

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. (Andy’s article for the print edition of the Times is here. This page also includes a convenient box of links to the series of articles he wrote on this subject in 2006.) 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.

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. The commendable thing about yesterday’s OIG report is that it correctly implicates senior NASA officials in the censorship effort and demonstrates that Deutsch was indeed a bit player. The report fingers the main perpetrators inside the agency – all political appointees – accurately and by name: David Mould, who is still NASA’s Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs (the head of public affairs for the entire agency); Mould’s former Deputy AA, Dean Acosta; and Mould’s predecessor, Glenn Mahone. The latter two have left the agency – both under duress.

But what the report leaves out is any connection between these three individuals (bit players as well when you come down to it – and our new scapegoats) and those who directed the censorship from within the White House – mainly from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Furthermore, CEQ communicated regularly on this issue with the office of Vice President Dick Cheney (Censoring Science, p. 114).

As Andy Revkin told me today by e-mail, “After covering repeated instances in which the White House exerted near line-by-line control over the way government agencies handled climate news, I find it nearly impossible to envision a scenario that would have allowed two years to pass at NASA – including the reelection year, 2004 – without significant White House involvement in vetting or managing the flow of information there.

“It’s conceivable that there was some magical bubble at NASA, insulated from the Bush administration. There is, as the OIG concluded, no paper trail and only a partial electronic one. But, boy, I’d need to see compelling evidence of such a breakdown in administrative and political control before reporting on it.”

I am also impressed (as Andy mentions on his blog), at how the report deals with the subtler aspects of censorship, such as what it calls the “use of timing to lessen the scientific message,” in other words, delaying press releases and the like until they were old news and no longer interesting; “news forums minimization,” the downgrading of a news item from a press release to an obscure Web posting, for instance, so it would attract less attention; or “self censorship,” which took many forms, but basically boiled down to making it so difficult to get a climate story out that scientists would water down their findings in order to get something out, at least.

It is interesting to me that a few of the incidents in which I found clear White House involvement, and even, in some cases, clear electronic trails, are portrayed very differently in this report than they are in my book: for example, a case just before the election in 2004 in which a press release about a study by Drew Shindell and Gavin Schmidt from Jim’s organization, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was delayed for more than a month by White House officials and watered down to the point of utter blandness. (Compare pages 125-128 of the book with p. 27 of the report.)

The report also contains an odd contradiction. While it indicates, correctly, that, especially during the build-up to the 2004 election, Mahone and Acosta provided advance copies of all climate-related media products to the White House, while Mahone and Acosta even “acknowledge” this in the report (p. 19), and while the report includes “timing” in its definition of censorship, it does not reach the obvious conclusion that this notification procedure constituted censorship. There may be no firm evidence that White House personnel themselves actually edited climate products, but they were not released to the public until Mahone and Acosta heard back from the White House, a process that often took weeks. This secretive notification procedure, which did involve the editing of nearly all climate-related releases – although, again, the White House may not have made the actual changes – is one of the most chilling stories in my book. As with most aspects of the censorship campaign, Mahone and Acosta purposefully avoided a paper or electronic trail, directing Gretchen Cook-Anderson, the career civil servant who found herself in the unfortunate position of having to participate, not to send e-mails or written memoranda. (Like many of my sources, the OIG points to the paucity of documentary evidence.)

As for the bare-knuckled censorship incident mentioned at the beginning of this post, it began with a phone call to Leslie McCarthy, the public affairs coordinator at Jim Hansen’s institute, on December 15, 2005, the day that ABC’s Good Morning America reported on Jim’s recent determination that the year had set a record for the warmest in the instrumental record (since the late 1800s).

Pages 32-41 of the report run more-or-less in parallel with the first two chapters of my book. Here is the OIG’s version of this critical moment:

On December 15, 2005, … the Goddard Institute for Space Studies Public Affairs Office Coordinator [Leslie] was teleconferenced by Messrs. Mould and Acosta and three Headquarters Office of Public Affairs officials [that would be George Deutsch, Dwayne Brown, and Jason Sharp (Censoring Science pp. 31-37)] and told that all media interview requests with a NASA employee must be coordinated with the Headquarters Office of Public Affairs. They further directed that no comments or interviews should be granted until they were coordinated and approved by senior Science Mission Directorate officials and the Headquarters Office of Public Affairs. Messrs. Mould and Acosta further directed that senior Science Mission Directorate officials would have the “right of first refusal” and would direct who would handle that Mission Directorate’s related media requests. The Coordinator also stated that Mr. Mould commented that he was “tired of Jim Hansen trying to run an independent press operation . . . from now on I want to know everything he does.” The three Headquarters Office of Public Affairs officials stated to us that the comment by Mr. Mould was part of a heated discussion with the Goddard Institute for Space Studies Public Affairs Coordinator and was in direct response to the Coordinator’s comment that his/her office did not answer to Mr. Mould. [True: Leslie’s reporting chain ran through Goddard Space Flight Center directly to the Administrator. Headquarters public affairs was not involved.]

During the teleconference, according to the Public Affairs Coordinator, Messrs. Mould and Acosta verbally directed the Coordinator that, unlike previous practice, all Goddard Institute for Space Studies’ postings to its Web site must be approved by senior Science Mission Directorate officials and the Headquarters Office of Public Affairs. This was a departure from previous policy insomuch as this level of approval included the Web posting of scientific journals, data releases, science briefs, and news features. Additionally, all speeches, data releases, and scientific meetings that included Goddard Institute for Space Studies scientists were to be reported to the Headquarters Office of Public Affairs so it could be aware of any activities that would draw national media attention. 

I think reasonable people might agree that “approval” by public affairs officials, who have no science background, of simple “data releases,” such as the temperature analysis that had been posted that morning and which, in fact, was taken down at the direction of Dean Acosta that day, amounts to blatant censorship.

A similar phone call took place the next day between Acosta, Mould, and Mark Hess, Leslie McCarthy’s supervisor at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Hess and McCarthy then compared notes, and, a few days later, Hess sent an e-mail to Mould, Acosta and some others, summarizing their understanding of the new rules.

Not only do Mould and Acosta continue to present very different versions of the two phone calls than Hess and McCarthy do, they have also consistently denied – even to investigators from the House Science Committee – that they even received this e-mail.

What is new in this report is corroborating testimony from Deutsch, Brown, and Sharp, confirming Leslie’s version of the pivotal phone call. (The OIG, as well, finds her version infinitely more believable than the one proferred by Mould and Acosta.) Using “forensic” computer methods, the OIG also found evidence that the pivotal e-mail did reach Acosta’s computer, that someone (who else could it have been?) read it on Acosta’s Blackberry and forwarded it to his assistant – Mr. Sharp, I believe – with the comment: “Take a look at this and let me know what you think.” The assistant responded roughly half-an-hour later with a slight re-wording of Hess’s e-mail, indicating that he thought it captured the content of the call to Leslie very well. The OIG could find no direct evidence that the e-mail reached David Mould’s computer; however, the report does observe that the computer he was using at the time had been ” ‘wiped’ and only a minimal amount of data could be retrieved from that system,” and also that there were “gaps” from this important time period in the e-mails that were stored on Mould’s next computer.

“Based on the totality of the evidence, to include the volatile nature of this issue at the time, and that Mr. Acosta was Mr. Mould’s subordinate,” reads the report (on p. 11 of the exceedingly interesting Appendix E), “we stand by our comments … that the e-mail was successfully delivered to and received by the computer of at least one senior Public Affairs Official. And in the off chance it was not delivered to Mr. Mould’s account or it was accidently deleted, etc., it defies logic that Mr. Acosta would not have discussed this subject with him.”

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?


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