Probe finds NASA suppressed climate data

A report released Monday by NASA's Inspector General found that political appointees in the space agency's public affairs office deliberately played down research on climate change.

James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a leading climate scientist, has long said that he has been muzzled by NASA's public affairs office. A new report from NASA confirms his allegations.

A report released Monday by NASA's Inspector General found that political appointees in the space agency's public affairs office deliberately played down research on climate change.

The 48-page report (PDF) concluded that, for two years, public affairs officers interfered with findings by National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists, but that they were not acting under the direction of top NASA officials or the White House:

Our investigation found that during the fall of 2004 through early 2006, the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public through those particular media over which the Office of Public Affairs had control (i.e., news releases and media access). We also concluded that the climate change editorial decisions were localized within the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs; we found no credible evidence suggesting that senior NASA or Administration officials directed the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs to minimize information relating to climate change.

The public affairs officials implicated in the report told investigators that they managed climate scientists' communications for technical, not political, reasons. But the report found "by a preponderance of the evidence that the claims of inappropriate political interference made by the climate change scientists and career Public Affairs Officers were more persuasive than the arguments of the senior Public Affairs officials that their actions were due to the volume and poor quality of the draft news releases."

The interference did not extend to actual research on climate change, the report notes, nor did it alter the dissemination of climate change findings to the scientific community. "In short," the report finds, "the defects we found are associated with the manner of operation of the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs and are largely due to the actions of a few key senior employees of that office."

The report was requested by 14 senators after James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the agency's leading climate scientist, told the New York Times and other news outlets that he had been muzzled by NASA's press officers. The report found that after the Goddard Institute drew media attention in December 2005 after it published findings that the year was on track to be the hottest year on record, NASA broke with previous policies to demand that all interview requests with NASA employees be cleared with the public affairs office.

David Mould, a political appointee at NASA's press office, is quoted in the report as saying that he was "tired of Jim Hansen trying to run an independent press operation ... from now on I want to know everything he does."

In another instance, George Deutsch III, a Republican appointee to the press office, rejected a request from NPR to interview Mr. Hansen, a move contrary to the agency's established procedures. Mr. Deutsch labeled the public broadcaster a "liberal" media outlet and allegedly said that his job was "to make the president look good." (Deutsch subsequently resigned from NASA after it came to light that he had falsely claimed to be a college graduate.)

In 2004, a NASA press conference announcing the findings of a study on air pollution was squelched. An e-mail from the public affairs office advised that the "Administration does not want any negative environmental news before the election ... as such news could alter the election."

The report claims that the damage to NASA's credibility is far-reaching:

The actions of the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs also had an impact on many levels of Agency operations. News releases in the areas of climate change suffered from inaccuracy, factual insufficiency, and scientific dilution. Some scientists claimed to have self-censored; others simply gave up. Worse, trust was lost, at least temporarily, between an Agency and some of its key employees and perhaps the public it serves.

Dean Acosta, a former NASA public affairs officer who was sharply criticized in the report, doubts the Inspector General's credibility. "My entire career has been dedicated to open and honest communications," he wrote in an e-mail to the New York Times. "The inspector general’s assertions are patently false. The report itself does nothing but raise questions about a three-year investigation that has yielded nothing but flimsy allegations aimed at hard-working public servants."

Since the allegations of political interference surfaced, NASA says that it has taken steps to codify procedures for releasing information to the public. The report notes that the new policies were well-received by NASA employees as well as by staff in the House of Representatives. NASA says that it has not been made aware of any further complaints of suppression.

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