Following complaints that press officers and political appointees were censoring scientists, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration issued a new press policy on March 30, 2006, whose stated goal is to foster a "culture of openness."
But while that policy was initially hailed by some openness advocates as a step forward, several groups continued to criticize NASA for not going far enough.
The March 30 policy was announced by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin after it had been worked on by a panel of in-house employees from science, engineering, legal, public relations, and management areas. Even before it was released, the policy won some plaudits in a statement signed by agency scientists and engineers.
The policy cites a statutory requirement that NASA "provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof." It declares that "release of public information concerning NASA activities and the results of NASA activities will be made promptly, factually, and completely."
The policy also states affirmatively that "NASA employees may, consistent with this policy, speak to the press and the public about their work."
The policy seems to acknowledge NASA scientists' rights to publish freely in scientific journals, express "personal views" labelled as such, and give presentations at scientific conferences without prior approval by public affairs officials.
But the document also stresses the importance of the Public Affairs office's role in "coordinating and reviewing" information coming out of the agency. A lot remains to be seen about how that role will play out.
The policy seems to leave in place the public affairs office's authority to censor any important information leaving the agency. It specifies: "All NASA employees are required to coordinate, in a timely manner, appropriate public affairs officers prior to releasing information that has potential to generate significant media, or public interest or inquiry."
And it adds: "All NASA employees involved in preparing and issuing NASA public information are responsible for proper coordination among Headquarters, Center, and Mission Directorate offices to include review and clearance by appropriate officials prior to issuance."
One group criticizing the policy was the Government Accountability Project (GAP), which specializes in advocacy for whistleblowers. GAP Legal Director Tom Devine said: "The new policy violates the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Anti-Gag Statute, and the law protecting communications with Congress, the Lloyd-Lafollette Act. The loopholes are not innocent mistakes or oversights. ...NASA is intentionally defying the good government anti-secrecy laws."
The new policy prohibits employees flatly from disclosing information NASA puts in a category known as "sensitive but unclassified" (SBU) a poorly defined category that has little or no basis in actual law and is not by itself legally exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
It states: "All NASA SBU information requires accountability and approval for release. Release of SBU information to unauthorized personnel is prohibited. Unauthorized release of SBU information may result in prosecution and/or disciplinary action. Ignorance of NASA policy and procedures regarding SBU information does not release a NASA employee from responsibility for unauthorized release."
Examples of SBU information given in the policy include not only types of information, like trade secrets, now exempt from FOIA, but also "predecisional materials" and "pending reorganization plans." Thus an employee could be fined or fired for disclosing to a reporter or a congressman that a NASA facility in a certain congressional district was about to be shut down.
Moreover, the policy seems to go beyond previous restrictions, or those in most other agencies, by declaring: "Media interviews will be "on-the-record" and attributable to the person making the remarks, unless authorized to do otherwise by the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs or Center Public Affairs Director, or their designees."
Are "minders" the sort of Saddamesque information nannies targetted by recent complaints a thing of the past? Hardly. The policy specifies: "NASA employees may speak to the media and the public about their work. When doing so, employees shall notify their immediate supervisor and coordinate with their public affairs office in advance of interviews whenever possible, or immediately thereafter, and are encouraged, to the maximum extent practicable, to have a public affairs officer present during interviews."
- "NASA Policy on the Release of Information to News and Information Media," March 30, 2006. Accompanying message from NASA administrator and FAQ.
- "NASA Sets New Rules On Media; Employees May Discuss Findings, Agency Says," Washington Post, March 31, 2006, by Rick Weiss.
- "New NASA Policy Backs Free Discussion by Scientists," New York Times, March 31, 2006, by Warren E. Leary.
- "Scientists Commend NASA's Progress on Communications," New York Times, March 14, 2006, by Andrew C. Revkin (paid archive/free preview).
- "NASA Launches New Disclosure Policy," OMB Watcher, April 4, 2006.
- Government Accountability Project (GAP): Release of April 3, 2006, "NASA's New Media Policy Falls Short of Administrator's Promise of 'Culture of Openness'."
- Previous Story: WatchDog of Feb. 23, 2006.
- Previous Story on "sensitive but unclassified" category: WatchDog of Feb. 23, 2006.