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Publication date: Feb. 8, 2006

NASA CENSORS SCIENTISTS, THEN SWEARS OFF AGAIN

NASA swore off of censoring climate scientists yet again Feb. 4, 2006, this time in the face of reproachful editorials from across the country, a TIME Magazine cover package, and a rebuke from the Republican Chair of the House Science Committee. But the question of whether government scientists were truly free to talk to the news media or even fellow scientists continued to nag.

NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin sent an e-mail to all agency employees, the New York Times reported, calling for "scientific openness" and declaring: "It is not the job of public-affairs officers to alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by NASA's technical staff."

Griffin said NASA is re-evaluating its policies on the public affairs office's role as an intermediary between the press and agency employees. Few documents describing just what those current policies are have been made publicly available.

But questions remained unanswered about what role, if any, Griffin himself, other top agency political appointees, and NASA science chief Mary Cleave, may have played in science censorship that had made national news when the Times reported it on Jan. 29, 2006. The story, reported by Andrew C. Revkin, documented how White House appointees had directed the content of agency releases to support President Bush's policies of avoiding climate-based emission controls and controlling contacts between scientists and the press.

Revkin's Jan. 29 story centered on statements by James Hansen, who heads NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, that agency public relations brass were threatening and trying to silence him. Following publication of that story, Revkin was bombarded with accounts from other agency personnel confirming that such censorship was indeed an intentional policy and pattern at the agency. Revkin and others possess numerous documents attesting to this fact, although few have been published out of concern for retaliation against employees who leaked them.

Hansen told Revkin and others that NASA public affairs officials were insisting on advance review of his lectures, scientific papers, and postings to his own lab's website as well as approval of which news interviews he could take part in and sitting in on the interviews themselves. Moreover, he said, they had warned him of "dire consequences" if he did not cooperate.

Given the massive documentation that censorship was official policy, Griffin's disclaimer rang hollow in some ears especially since it was not the first time in the last few months that the agency had publicly renounced censorship after being caught at it. After the surfacing in September of an Aug. 29, 2005, memo from NASA's public affairs office ordering agency employees to direct all public inquiries through the public affairs office, a spokesman told the press the memo had been misunderstood, and that his office had not intended to muzzle employees. (See WatchDogs of Sept. 21, and Sept. 7, 2005.)

The TIME Magazine cover package of Feb. 5, 2006, had made such denials unbelievable by summarizing a long, well-documented, and largely undisputed record of Bush administration interference with and suppression of scientific information. Moreover, the pattern was one that went beyond NASA itself, restricting scientist-press contacts at agencies ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration. The WatchDog has reported on such restrictions for several years.

Equally hard to ignore was a stinging letter fired off to Griffin Jan. 30 by House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (NY) a Republican calling for an end to NASA censorship and declaring: "Good science cannot long persist in an atmosphere of intimidation." That panel is one of NASA's main patrons.

Fallout continued Feb. 8 when it was revealed that George Deutsch, a 24-year-old political appointee who had played a role in the censorship, had resigned. But Hansen described Deutsch to the Times as only a "bit player," and his resignation may have distracted public attention from the role of agency higher-ups.

The drama struck a chord with editorialists across the country including the red-state mid-American heartland:

  • "Feisty scientists such as Dr. Hansen are about the only voices Americans will hear on global warming because the White House and most of Congress remain in denial," wrote the Palm Beach Post Feb. 4.
  • "Even if you don't understand everything James Hansen says, you need to listen to make sure he's still being allowed to say it," wrote the Salt Lake Tribune Jan. 30. "The future of human civilization may depend on it."
  • "We need scientists to be free to discuss viewpoints stemming from their work without having to stick to a party line," wrote the La Crosse Tribune Feb. 3. "What good are scientists to us as a society if they are not allowed to say what they really believe?".
  • "Mr. Hansen said he plans to ignore restrictions," wrote the Decatur (AL) Daily Feb. 6. "The administration's response will show whether it wants good science or wants science distorted to fit its preconceived policy."
  • "The job of government public affairs officials is to inform the public and make available public information," wrote the Houston Chronicle Feb. 4.
Here are links to other recent coverage and source documents:


Last revised January 22, 2013

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