NASA Inspector General finds James Hansen was censored, but not his research

On June 2, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) Office of the Inspector General released the results of an investigation into allegations that James Hansen, Columbia University climatologist and NASA scientist with the Goddard Institute for Space Sciences (GISS), had been censored by the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs. The results were a vindication of Hansen and his various supporters who’d claimed that he’d been censored in his access to the media by NASA political appointees. But the report (“Investigative Summary Regarding Allegations that NASA Suppressed Climate Change Science and Denied Media Access to Dr. James E. Hansen, a NASA Scientist”) did not find any evidence that the censorship extended beyond the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs or that the censorship had included Hansen’s research in any way.

According to the Space Act of 1958, NASA has a legal requirement that information about its activities and research be made public:

Of particular relevance to our investigation is section 203(a)(3) of the Space Act, which directs NASA “to provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof.” (original emphasis)

And the Inspector General found that in this particular case, this statutory requirement wasn’t met according to the preponderance of evidence:

[W]e cannot envision a circumstance in which the Space Act’s language or intent would permit, as “appropriate,” circumstances where Agency Public Affairs officials purposely deny, delay, tone down, or subordinate to lesser media the presentation of federally funded scientific research to the public, and in which the public clearly has a substantial interest, because they believed it to be inconsistent with Administration policies or priorities, which is what is reasonably reflected by the evidence….

We do not believe, however, that the Agency’s statutory mandate or regulatory commitments, with specific reference to its public affairs functions, allow for the intentional distortion of information or science in press releases the Agency—in its exercise of discretion—has elected to issue. Likewise, purposefully withholding or delaying meritorious releases to ostensibly meet political objectives would also appear to stretch the mandate to provide “the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and results thereof.”

The report found that the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs standard operating procedure during the period that the censorship occurred went basically like this: the scientist submits his press release to his local NASA PR offfice who work with the scientist to make it’s accurate and easily understood by the general public, a draft is sent to a subject expert in the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs who then reverifies the accuracy of the information and, if it’s not accurate, works via the local NASA PR office to clear up any problems, and once any issues are cleared up, the press release is scrubbed for style and released. However, the report found that it didn’t always work this way:

Public Affairs Officers and scientists employed in the fields of Earth science and astrophysics told our investigators that the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs did not, on a consistent basis, apply the same Standard Operating Procedure for news releases, media advisories, news features, Internet postings, and media interviews—especially when it came to information that might be politically sensitive, such as climate change. Further, many of them—to include career Public Affairs Officers—characterized the news release approval process as “arbitrary” and questioned whether the Headquarters Office of Public Affairs was choosing to ignore its own Standard Operating Procedure. Some NASA scientists said that they even questioned the existence of an Office of Public Affairs Standard Operating Procedure, based on their ignored requests (to Public Affairs) for documentation of their internal policies….

According to present and former career Public Affairs Officers at NASA Headquarters and Field Centers that we interviewed,31 the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs processed all media products that discussed “climate change” (or a variant thereof) in a unique manner during the pre-election period of the fall of 2004 through the spring of 2006. Describing the review process for climate change media products as extremely onerous, stressful, and heavy handed, it was their collective belief that there was an “air of political interference” and a desire by the political appointees in the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs to support the Administration by reducing the amount or toning down the impact of climate change research disseminated to the public. Career employees described to us a Headquarters Office of Public Affairs environment where “looking good” was the preeminent motivator of their political appointee superiors and coworkers (rather than following a process with regard to their statutorily required research dissemination).

According to the report, the political appointee most responsible for blocking Hansen’s access to the press was former Deputy Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs and Emmy award-winning journalist Dean Acosta.

Almost all the career NASA Headquarters Public Affairs Officers told us that during 2004 through early 2006, it was “generally understood” that all “climate change” media text products were to be personally hand-carried to Mr. Acosta for review….

One witness, a former Headquarters Public Affairs Officer, informed our investigators that in October 2004, Mr. Acosta told him/her about his (Mr. Acosta’s) concern that there were “too many” climate-related news releases being submitted for approval and that the Earth Science Mission Directorate Public Affairs Office needed to do a better job of “preventing” the development of climate-related and especially climate change news releases. Again, we found no direct evidence of affirmative actions by NASA personnel that were in furtherance of Mr. Acosta’s remarks. We did, however, discover records that were gathered in support of NASA’s management review of alleged scientific suppression in 2006,33 that reflected a subsequent reduction in climate-related news releases, from 48 in 2004 to 12 in 2005….

The scientists we interviewed claimed these delays and conversions were “politically motivated” as they lessened the impact of the story because the lack of timeliness and the forums chosen for dissemination resulted in the media outlets being less likely to pick up the stories.

Mr. Acosta denies all this, stating that any delays were necessary due to the extensive editing required to create a product that the general public could understand. The NASA Field Center Public Affairs Officers and scientists that we interviewed deny the assertion that the releases needed extensive editing….

As a writer and journalist, I take great personal pride in the compliments I get from people about my ability to distill complex scientific and technological subjects down to language that non-specialists can understand. It takes effort and practice, but it’s not terribly difficult for me, and I’m not even trained in the art of writing or editing specifically for a non-scientific audience, as Mr. Acosta or his various subordinates almost certainly are. As such, the claims of the career NASA Field Center Public Affairs Officers that releases did not need extensive editing are, in my opinion and that of the NASA Inspector General, far more credible than Mr. Acosta’s.

But while the report finds that Mr. Acosta, and to a lesser extent his former boss and current Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, David R. Mould, were responsible for suppressing global warming science and Hansen’s contact with the press, James Hansen himself isn’t entirely off the hook either. The report found that, following his speech before the 2005 American Geophysical Union Conference, Hansen failed to follow official NASA procedures by alerting the Office of Public Affairs about some of his press contacts, and several articles were printed or interviews aired before Acosta could be notified. This led, according to the report, to Mould and Acosta contacting the GISS and demanding that all GISS employee interviews had to be approved by the Headquarters Office of Public Affairs.

As someone who has worked for private industry for my entire career to date, I can reasonably confidently state that, if Hansen had worked for any one of the companies I’ve worked for, he’d have been severely disciplined or fired instead of being merely reined in by the PR people for going around them. Hansen’s behavior may have been tolerated by the GISS because he’s an academic, a respected scientist, and a government employee, but no corporation would have done so.

That being said, however, the greatest interference (arguably) that occurred was this:

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….

The Headquarters Office of Public Affairs has authority only over press contacts – it has no authority over access to scientific publications or Web content intended for a scientific audience. And so this new policy instituted on verbal order was unprecedented, and almost definitionally an attempt to censor the data released from Hansen and the GISS. And that’s when things got really messy.

On December 16, 2005, the Chief of the Goddard Space Flight Center Office of Public Affairs, was telephonically contacted by Messrs. Mould and Acosta. The Chief advised us that Mr. Acosta told him/her that the Headquarters Office of Public Affairs’ policy concerning a “heads-up” on media inquiries had changed and that the Headquarters Office of Public Affairs now wanted to know everything that Dr. Hansen was doing….

As a result, the Chief felt Dr. Hansen was being “singled out” by the Headquarters Office of Public Affairs, which prompted him to send an e-mail to Dr. Hansen’s supervisors notifying them of the Headquarters Office of Public Affairs’ desire that the Goddard Space Flight Center Office of Public Affairs monitor Dr. Hansen—and that the Chief did not think that was their job.

On December 20, 2005, the Chief of the Goddard Space Flight Center Office of Public Affairs sent an e-mail to Messrs. Acosta and Mould memorializing the directions given during the teleconference in an attempt to get written confirmation of these directives. Neither Mr. Acosta nor Mr. Mould replied to the e-mail. Both later claimed to NASA leadership and congressional staff that they never received it. Congressional staff informed our investigators that Messrs. Mould and Acosta denied that the contents of the e-mail accurately reflected what was discussed and that the teleconference with the Goddard Institute for Space Studies Public Affairs Coordinator was not an initiation of a monitoring effort but was only a reiteration of the “heads-up” policy already in place. In contradiction to this denial, the three Headquarters Office of Public Affairs officials who were party to the December 15, 2005, teleconference all concurred that the contents of the e-mail message both accurately summarized the directions given during the teleconference and the way that the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs worked.

Our investigation confirmed that that e-mail from the Chief of the Goddard Space Flight Center Office of Public Affairs was, in fact, drafted, sent, and received by others who were on the same distribution list as Messrs. Acosta and Mould. Further, a forensic examination of electronic data obtained from Mr. Acosta’s NASA-issued computer revealed that the e-mail had been successfully delivered to Mr. Acosta’s e-mail address and it had been saved to his hard drive as a normal function of e-mail retrieval from the server. The examination of available data further showed that he (or someone operating his equipment) had received and reviewed the e-mail on his Blackberry device, and then forwarded it to another Headquarters Office of Public Affairs staff member for advice, who, in turn, responded to him via e-mail correspondence.

Note that this means Acosta lied under oath to Congress. And so, while this report was not a criminal investigation, it may still have uncovered evidence of perjury.

And in case that’s not enough evidence for you, here’s yet more, in this case evidence that Mould and Acosta threw an underling under the bus to save themselves:

Of interest, the Agency’s position is that Mr. Deutsch was the Headquarters Office of Public Affairs’ representative who denied National Public Radio’s request to interview Dr. Hansen. To a degree, that is true. According to Mr. Deutsch, however, this denial was based on the direction given to him by his supervisor, Mr. Acosta, which we believe is credible. Mr. Acosta denies giving such direction and, indeed, NASA appears to have adopted the position that Mr. Deutsch (as a 24-year-old GS-9 in his first job in Government) acted independently when making the decision to deny National Public Radio’s request….

Particularly troublesome to us is that when the denial of the National Public Radio interview became controversial, Mr. Deutsch’s leadership distanced themselves from him on this issue by not taking responsibility for any actions taken in connection with the interview denial. Instead, Messrs. Mould and Acosta intimated that Mr. Deutsch had acted alone in denying the request from National Public Radio, when, in fact, Mr. Deutsch was simply carrying out their orders or intent.

While the report found that there had been manipulations of Hansen’s access to the press, it did not find that there had been any such manipulations of his access to scientific journals, nor was there any such pattern within NASA at all:

In the course of our investigation, we neither received nor discovered any complaints or concerns regarding the operating procedures or implementation of those procedures used for NASA’s release of scientific and technical reports. Further, the NASA Office of Inspector General’s Office of Audits corroborated our observations in a recent audit, noted earlier, which found no evidence that the STI review process was used to inappropriately suppress the release of scientific data. Again, of the 287 authors surveyed at the four Field Centers reviewed, none indicated that they had personally experienced or knew of anyone else who had experienced actual or perceived suppression of their research. Further, a published review conducted by the Government Accountability Office estimated that 91 percent of NASA researchers believe that the Agency supports dissemination of research results through publications. (original emphasis)

And the report also found no evidence that there had been an attempt to suppress Hansen’s research via budget cuts:

We found no credible evidence that the Agency had used the budget as form of scientific suppression. While the overall budget for the Science Mission Directorate’s Earth Science Division declined, the decline was associated with the Agency’s decision to retire the Space Shuttle by 2010, complete the International Space Station, and transition to the next-generation space vehicle in furtherance of the President’s Vision for Space Exploration.

In addition, the Inspector General found no evidence that, although reports were provided to the White House Press Office in advance of publication, there was any White House “approval” of the press releases:

[O]ur investigation found no direct evidence that non-NASA officials serving within the Administration were editing/approving the release of climate change media products. We did, however, find evidence that the NASA Office of Public Affairs routinely notified Administration officials of newsworthy events and, in one case, appeared to be coordinating with Administration officials with respect to the timing of a climate-related press conference and news release….

[O]ur investigation found that at least one climate change news release, “Aura Sheds New Light on Pollution,” was intentionally delayed by NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs until after the election. We could not, however, substantiate other allegations of over “month long delays” in getting releases approved or released during the pre-election period.

So, where does this go now? The report is not intended to be the results of a criminal investigation, even though the investigation discovered possible criminal activity in at least one case (perjury before Congress) and possibly others. But the fact that Acosta is so pointedly identified as the primary player (with Mould as secondary) can’t do his two recent employers, first DC-based PR firm Qorvis Communications and now Chicago-based Boeing, any favors. There is still a stink of ego-driven “he said, he said” conflict here, but the preponderance of evidence points to the conclusion that the NASA Headquarters Office of Press Affairs did interfere with climate scientists, and especially James Hansen’s, access to teh press for a period of time. According to federal law, that’s certainly against regulations and may, or may not, be criminal.

Regardless, though, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General found that there was undue interference by political appointees on the public’s access to scientific information, and that alone will give yet more ammunition to those who continue to claim such interference has been widespread during the Presidency of Bush II. There is one piece of good news, though – the research and reporting of results in scientific journals was not distorted, largely because the NASA Headquarters Office of Press Affairs lacked the organizational authority to do so.

But we should make sure that, in other instances and organizations where the press office has authority over the science reporting, distortions have not occurred.

Other articles on this report:

7 replies »

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  2. I’ll have to add this to my media ethics course. Thanks for the detail, Brian.

  3. I suggest that, if you’re serious about that, you take the time to read all 93 pages – there’s a LOT more there than I could possibly put into a post, even one so quote-dense as this one turned out to be. I didn’t even quote any of the supporting evidence in the Appendices, which is about half the report.

  4. A well written article. Thanks for putting it together.

    I would be interested if anyone has put anything together on possible motive. Did the PR administration take issue with Hansen’s reports? Did they take issue with the way they perceived he sought media attention? Were Hansen’s press releases out of line with other departments? In short, was this an agenda, an authority issue or a failed attempt in dealing with an unruly department head? (Obviously much more speculative.)

    Personally, in tandem with this investigation I would love to see an investigation into how Hansen operates his scientific research. From what I’ve seen, if this is the NASA standard it is a small miracle only two space shuttles have blown up.