Politics of Climate Change on Display at House Hearing

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  Space News Business

Politics of Climate Change on Display at House Hearing

By BRIAN BERGER
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 29 March 2007
04:23 pm ET




WASHINGTON — A former NASA political appointee accused of trying to muzzle the U.S. space agency’s top climatologist said at a March 19 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he never censored anybody.

George Deutsch, an unpaid intern on U.S. President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign who went to work for NASA public affairs the following year at age 23, was thrust into the media spotlight in early 2006, when the New York Times reported he took part in an effort to keep James Hansen, the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), from speaking freely about global warming to reporters.

Deutsch no longer works for NASA and the U.S. space agency has been praised, including by Hansen, for the revised public affairs policy it issued in the wake of the controversy affirming the right of its scientists to speak to news media about their research.

Interference?

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee’s chairman, said he was holding the hearing to investigate allegations that the Bush administration has interfered with the work of government climate scientists in an effort to mislead the public about the causes and consequences of global warming.

Most of the hearing was devoted to charges that the former chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Philip Cooney, sought to water down the government’s strategic plan for climate change by replacing crisp statements from scientists with equivocating language that Waxman said was intended to “inject doubt in the place of certainty.”

Cooney, an attorney who spent 15 years at the American Petroleum Institute before accepting the White House job, said the 180 edits catalogued by Waxman’s staff were “suggestions,” not “hard edits,” made in the course of a routine interagency process. He said many of his suggestions did not make it into the final draft.

When the hearing occasionally turned to the question of political interference at NASA, neither Hansen nor Deutsch dropped any bombshells and lawmakers were unable to coax many new details from the witnesses.

“I never censored Dr. Hansen, and I do not believe others at NASA did either,” Deutsch said. Hansen, in his written testimony, suggested that a deeper inquiry is necessary if lawmakers want to find out what really happened at NASA in late 2005.

“My suggestion for getting at the truth is to question the relevant participants under oath, including the then NASA Associate Administrator for Earth Sciences, who surely is aware of who in the White House was receiving and reviewing press releases that related to climate change,” Hansen wrote.

While Democrats reserved their fire for Cooney, whom they painted as a shill for the oil industry, several Republicans on the committee, led by Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.) accused Hansen of politicizing global warming, and scoffed at the idea that Hansen had been muzzled by anyone. Noting the abundance of interviews Hansen has done in the past year, Issa said, “you’re one of the most googleable people on the face of the Earth, so the message is getting out.”

Public Affairs

Hansen testified that NASA public affairs first attempted to place new restrictions on his public statements and dealings with the media following a widely covered talk he gave at a scientific conference in December 2005 warning of a “grim [environmental] scenario” unless growth in greenhouse gas emissions was halted by 2025. Shortly after the conference, Hansen went on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to discuss a new global temperature study by GISS showing 2005 had been the warmest year on record.

“NASA headquarters public affairs was furious about the media attention, their anger being sparked by a call from the White House objecting to the publicity on global warming,” Hansen testified. “The upshot was a new explicit set of constraints on me, including a requirement that any media interviews be approved beforehand and that headquarters have the ‘right of first refusal’ on all interviews, that I provide my calendar of all planned talks and meetings, and that I obtain prior approval for every posting on the GISS Web site.”

Deutsch said Hansen was known for disagreeing with NASA public affairs practices, a point that “created a level of frustration among my higher-ups at NASA, who wanted to know about interviews before they happened, instead of afterwards.”

Deutsch said his superiors “expressed their frustration to me and, collectively, we expressed our frustration to Dr. Hansen’s personal press representative, Leslie Nolan-McCarthy.”

Deutsch did not elaborate on his interaction with Nolan-McCarthy. But an e-mail written around the same time by Mark Hess, a career civil servant who runs public affairs at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., detailed the guidance he had received from NASA headquarters on managing Hansen’s press relations.

“Leslie [Nolan-McCarthy] is putting together a note which recaps what HQs [sic] has directed (not asked) us to do with regard to ‘monitoring’ the work of [the Goddard Institute for Space Studies] and Dr. Hansen in particular,” Hess wrote in the Dec. 19 e-mail to Hansen’s Goddard-based supervisors, Franco Einaudi and Laurie Leshin. “I think we need to discuss this with you because I don’t feel that in some instances, some of what they are asking us to do falls into the [Goddard Space Flight Center] to [Science Mission Directorate] reporting chain, not public affairs (e.g. they are asking we keep track of his schedule, his speaking engagements, his media interviews, all the science papers being submitted from GISS, all the content on the GISS Web site, etc., etc.)”

Hansen said he realized the restrictions were going to be an impediment when NASA public affairs “barred” him later that month from granting an interview to National Public Radio.

The Ninth Floor

Deutsch admitted his intervention in the interview request, but told the committee he was just following established NASA procedure when he took the request to his “higher ups” in public affairs for their input. Deutsch said NASA’s press secretary at the time, Dean Acosta, decided to offer NPR interviews with senior NASA Science Mission Directorate personnel instead of Hansen.

“I took it to the ninth floor and discussed it with my higher ups,” Deutsch said. “They thought it over and said, ‘hey, we’ve got three other qualified people'”

Deutsch said the three people NPR was offered as a substitute for Hansen were then-NASA associate administrator for science, Mary Cleave, her deputy Colleen Hartman, and Jack Kaye, a senior Earth science official.

NASA assistant administrator for public affairs, David Mould, disputed Hansen’s allegations that his press releases were censored or that he was prevented from talking to the media.

In an interview with Space News Mould said he and Acosta called McCartney at GISS after the temperature story aired to express his frustration with GISS’s refusal to give headquarters a “heads up” that they were releasing information of interest to national media.

As for the Hess e-mail concerning a meeting with Mould and Acosta discussing new restrictions for Hansen, Mould said in a March 19 interview that it never happened. “The meeting never happened. I never got that e-mail until some congressional staffer showed it to me,” Mould said.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) questioned Deutsch about an e-mail he sent to NASA Web designer Flint Wild, a contractor, about changing science stories posted to agency Web sites to insert the word “theory” after Big Bang.

Norton said she had no problem with calling the Big Bang a theory, but was concerned by other portions of Deutsch’s e-mail where he suggested NASA show deference to other explanations of how the universe began, namely Intelligent Design.

“A Silly Place”

Deutsch said he now realizes that “a work e-mail is a silly place” to discuss such personal views, but said that in the end, the only request he made of Wild was to insert “theory” after Big Bang per Associated Press style.

“I only sent this e-mail to Flint. It was not a statement on NASA policy or anything like that,” Deutsch said. “The bulk of that is my personal opinion, my personal religious views — views, I understood Mr. Wild to share. He was a Christian and I am a Christian.”

Norton also questioned Deutsch about statements he made on a radio program shortly after leaving NASA in which he suggested that he was the victim of a partisan smear campaign.

“I frankly said a lot of that stuff out of anger,” Deutsch said.

Resumes

Deutsch resigned from NASA Feb. 7, 2006, after it was revealed that he had not graduated from Texas A&M University despite claiming on his resume that he had.

Deutsch told the committee that he wrote his resume sometime in 2003 in anticipation of receiving his degree, but withdrew from school “one course shy of graduation.” When the time came to apply for a position as a presidential appointee, he said, he failed to update his resume to reflect that he had not graduated.

“To the best of my recollection, I told the hiring officials I spoke to in the administration, including at NASA, that I did not have my degree, and it was never a problem,” Deutsch said.

Deutsch’s explanations prompted one of the stranger exchanges of the hearing.

“I’m very much impressed by you,” Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) told Deutsch. “It sounds like you got your resume out there, you had it prepared in anticipation of graduation. If somebody ever raises that as a question in your career, I would be happy to be a recommender for you to straighten that out,” Cannon said.

“Thank you,” said a visibly pleased Deutsch.

“Wanna hire him,” deadpanned Waxman.