(Cross-posted from Tipping Points)
In the days since the election, a few people have asked for my thoughts on the "transition" that needs to take place at NASA as the reins of power are passed to Barack Obama. While I would not pretend to be an expert on the agency as a whole, I think I may, in the years that it took to write Censoring Science, have developed enough of an understanding of the way the agency’s science effort has been "managed" under Bush, Cheney and administrator Michael Griffin to voice some informed opinions there.
Other reporters or bloggers always have their own deadlines and points to make, and ask me to squeeze my thoughts into a sentence or two. But my main recommendation here is controversial enough to require more than that. It must be supported by facts. Many relevant facts will be found in my book, and new crucial details were revealed in the report on censorship at NASA (pdf) that the agency’s own Office of Inspector General released this past June, six months after the book’s release. In Censoring Science, I reviewed facts and testimony that cast serious doubt on the administrator’s account of his own involvement in the censorship of climate science at his agency (he denied knowing anything about it), but I refrained from stating directly that I believed he was involved.
The new facts in the Inspector General’s report have changed my mind. I now believe that the preponderance of evidence shows that Michael Griffin not only knew what was happening while the single most egregious act of censorship—directed at climatologist James Hansen, specifically—was taking place, but that Griffin in fact authorized this activity.
This alone should be grounds for his dismissal. On top of that, the ignorance and outright animosity he has displayed toward science in general, climate science in particular, and even scientists as individuals (he has referred to them as children) should disqualify him from leading what was once arguably the most inspiring scientific organization in the world. There has been a brain drain during his tenure, and morale is low in the agency’s science mission. We should also remember that NASA’s climate science program, at more than $1 billion a year, is by far the largest of any single organization in the world, while Griffin's public statements indicate that he is remarkably ignorant of climate science and completely out of step with mainstream scientific thinking on the causes and consequences of global warming. It seems highly inappropriate for such an individual to lead such an important program.
NASA might have a chance to recover its prowess and inspire entire generations once again, but it has no chance, in my view, with Michael Griffin at the helm.
Why I believe Administrator Griffin helped censor Jim Hansen
Censorship at NASA makes for a long and dismal story. It began early in George W. Bush’s first term and was too widespread to cover even in a book. Michael Griffin inherited an active, though secretive, censorship program when he became administrator in mid-2005. The crucial series of incidents I will review here gave him his first chance to do the right thing, but instead of stepping in to stop the censorship, he helped escalate it. When Jim Hansen finally brought these incidents to light in the media more than six weeks after they began, Griffin and his top aides performed a deft public relations move, cut loose and scapegoated the young man who had been carrying out their orders, twenty-four-year-old George Deutsch, and managed to portray the administrator as a champion of scientific openness and integrity. The media and Congress then bought into this cynical and shameless ploy.
The crux of what turned out to be a short-lived clampdown on Jim Hansen (thanks only to his courageous resistance) was a set of directives laid out in two phone calls, one to Leslie McCarthy, the public affairs officer at Jim’s institute in New York, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the other to Leslie’s boss, Mark Hess, public affairs chief at the institute’s parent organization, Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The first call took place late in the day on December 15, 2005; the second, the following day.
The drama on Thursday the fifteenth had begun with a story on ABC’s Good Morning America. In a short spot dedicated mainly to other things, correspondent Bill Blakemore noted that new data from NASA showed 2005 has having tied or broken the record as the warmest year in the history of instrumental measurement, that is, since the late 1800s. The basis for Blakemore’s statement was a routine analysis of the Earth’s temperature that Hansen and his group were planning to release later that day. It was not surprising news, since the six hottest years on record had occurred in the previous eight years. That same day, two other scientific groups that conduct similar analyses released similar results.
Hansen’s group had been publishing this type of analysis for more than twenty years without incident. This morning, however, according to many eyewitnesses, ABC’s brief newscast precipitated what came to be known as a "shit storm" at NASA headquarters in Washington. At about 5:30 pm, Leslie McCarthy in New York received the last of the many calls she received from headquarters that day. On the line were David Mould, NASA’s Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, the head of public affairs for the entire agency; Dean Acosta, the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs and Mould’s second-in-command; Mould’s assistant, Deputy Press Secretary Jason Sharp; and young George Deutsch, a recent hire in public affairs. All were political appointees. Part way through the call, Dwayne Brown, a career public affairs officer with more than twenty years at the agency, joined these four in Acosta’s office. They laid out to Leslie a number of new, restrictive rules on the dissemination of scientific information from Hansen’s institute. We’ll turn to the details in a moment.
The next day, Leslie’s boss, Mark Hess, was "directed to contact Mr. Acosta," in the words of the Inspector General. When Hess called and reached Acosta, David Mould joined in. Afterwards, Hess called Leslie McCarthy to compare notes. They agreed that they had been given more-or-less identical sets of rules. Since the rules were unprecedented and Hess and McCarthy had misgivings about them, they decided to summarize them in writing. (One of Mould, Acosta, and their fellow censors tactics was to work only by word of mouth so as not to leave a paper or electronic trail.)
On Monday, the 19th, Hess sent an e-mail to Jim Hansen’s supervisors at Goddard Space Flight Center. "At some point fairly soon," he wrote, "... I need to sit down with you and fill you in on the discussion both Leslie McCarthy ... and I had with David Mould and Dean Acosta." Hess later told me that the reason he sent this e-mail was to place responsibility where he thought it belonged. Acosta and Mould "were not going to put public affairs into trying to be the thought police," he said. "If there were legitimate concerns between scientists in terms of how NASA communicates what it’s doing, those are discussions that need to take place between scientists."
Indeed, NASA’s founding charter, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, directs the agency "to provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof." "[W]e cannot reconcile that the Space Act would permit any purposeful obfuscation of scientific research by the Agency in any news dissemination forum as ‘appropriate’ under the Act," adds the Inspector General.
On Tuesday, the 20th, Hess sent an e-mail to Mould and Acosta, copied to Leslie McCarthy—in order, in the words of the Inspector General, "to memorialize the directions given during the teleconferences and to get written confirmation of these new directives." Since this oddly charming e-mail is the crux of the matter in many ways, I will quote it in its entirety:
David and Dean:
Leslie and I have been consulting on a summary of the discussions we had with you last week concerning the folks at GISS [Hansen’s institute] and how we should be coordinating with Goddard [Space Flight Center] and HQs [headquarters].
We took a crack at this, but before Leslie sits down with Dr. Hansen to go over these procedures, we thought we’d send you what she plans to talk to him about to make sure it captures all the information and activities you want provided to Leslie and from there on to you all.
It basically falls into three areas: interviews, web content and meetings—if we’ve missed anything, please let us know.
Any edits or other thoughts you have would be most helpful so that we can talk to Dr. Hansen about this as soon as possible. Also, I’m here throughout the holidays, so if you want to get together to discuss, before or after, just let me know a good day and time, and I’ll come down to HQs.
Best regards, and hope you both have a great Holiday.
PAO Procedures (to cover all scientists, including NASA civil servants and/or GISS contractors who receive NASA funding)
- NASA policy from the Administrator is that all calls or e-mails from the news media for interviews, comments or other information with NASA employees are to be immediately forwarded to the cognizant PAO [public affairs officer] for coordination with Headquarters Public Affairs. No comments or interviews should be granted until they have been coordinated and approved by the NASA HQs Science Mission Directorate and Public Affairs Office. If a reporter calls, or sends an e-mail directly to a NASA employee (or NASA funded contractor), the employee should immediately refer the call or forward the e-mail to the GISS PAO [Leslie McCarthy] who will work the request with [Goddard] and HQs. These requests will be forwarded to HQ Public Affairs who will in turn, work them with Drs. Mary Cleave and Colleen Hartman [the two most senior scientific managers at NASA]. Drs. Cleave and Hartman will have the right of first refusal on all interview requests. They will provide direction back to HQ on who will handle the interview. All interviews with NASA employees should be reported on fully via the HQ Public Affairs "On the Record" procedure.
- All content for the GISS webpage needs to be sent to Drs. Mary Cleave & Colleen Hartman, as well as HQ Public Affairs, for approval before posting. This includes the posting of accepted scientific journal articles, datasets, science briefs, and news/features.
- Dates of coming speeches, data releases, scientific meetings/conferences must be provided to the GISS PAO with enough advance notice to be able to keep HQ fully informed of any activities which may generate significant media coverage.
Let me draw your attention to the most important points here:
Item 1) "memorializes" prior approval and redirection of all media interviews with scientists and even gives the right to deny them. This was unprecedented in NASA’s fifty-year history. Reporters had always been able to contact scientists directly. This directive led to the most notorious outcome of this particular clampdown, when the agency prevented National Public Radio from interviewing Hansen during the same week that the phone calls took place. George Deutsch played the most active role in preventing the interview, explaining all along that he was acting on orders from Dean Acosta and top management. This was the main reason he was ultimately dismissed; however, the role of his superiors in preventing this interview was not mentioned in the news reports related to his dismissal.
Also, while this directive appears, at least, to keep control in the hands of scientists, Dean Acosta, a political appointee in public affairs with no science background, overruled Cleave and Hartman, the agency’s top two scientists, in the case of the NPR interview.
Item 2) provides for similar control of purely scientific information, published on the Web. (Again overruling Cleave and Hartman, Acosta kept the temperature analysis that had initiated the storm at headquarters off the Web for about a day.)
Item 3) generated much discussion, since it directs public affairs to monitor Jim Hansen’s every professional move—more plainly, to spy on him. Although most career NASA people were repulsed by this idea, he was in fact monitored for more than a year, until at least early 2007.
Most germane to the present discussion is the statement in item 1) that this new policy came "from the Administrator," Michael Griffin. The two phone calls were not the only times that Mould and Acosta claimed to be following Griffin’s orders. They made this assertion in other conversations during this time period as well. Even Mary Cleave and Colleen Hartman understood it that way. Given the importance of this issue and the many discussions at headquarters that took place on December 15th and for many days thereafter, it is hard to believe that the administrator would not have known that his name was being invoked.
Breaching the wall at Headquarters
Please bear with me as I step back and tell you a little about how I did the research for my book. (I am gratified, by the way, that the Inspector General’s report corroborates nearly every detail in the book that it bothers to address—although the book goes places the report seems to have avoided. More on that in a moment.)
My approach was to talk first to the folks lower down the totem pole at NASA, at Hansen’s institute, Goddard Space Flight Center, and headquarters, in order to build a timeline of what happened and of who knew what when. Since this revealed contradictions with nearly everything the agency’s senior officials had already told news outlets such as the New York Times, I figured I would encounter resistance as I moved up the totem pole. Still, I sincerely wanted the managers’ side, or sides, of the story. When I felt that I had the facts pretty much straight, I decided to start at the very top by speaking to the administrator himself. Unfortunately, Dr. Griffin opened our conversion by telling me a patent lie that he spent the next hour-and-a-half trying to support. He claimed that he hadn’t heard anything about the spot on Good Morning America on December 15th nor anything about any possible "communications problem" involving Jim Hansen until six weeks after the fact, when the Times broke the censorship story. I would not have been surprised had he told me he hadn’t known what Mould and Acosta were up to, specifically, but to say that he had been unaware of an issue that had dominated headquarters for at least two days and prompted two or three calls from the White House? An hour or so after the Good Morning America spot, Mary Cleave told Dwayne Brown that Griffin himself had received one of these calls. And at the end of that long day Dwayne had gone directly from a meeting with Cleave to the phone call with Leslie McCarthy. It was Dwayne who enunciated items 2) and 3) during that call, on the authority of Cleave and Griffin. George Deutsch later testified under oath to Congress (pdf) that headquarters had been deluged with media inquiries that day, and in another forum revealed that "NASA public affairs staff met with senior leaders at the agency to discuss the problems with Hansen, and the topic of firing Hansen was raised." Considering the uproar Jim’s firing would have caused in the news media, it is hard to imagine that Griffin would not have been involved.
It may have been a tactical error for me to talk to Griffin first, and I may have made another when I asked him if I could speak to a few of his top aides next, listing them by name: Mould, Acosta (who left the agency the day after I spoke to Griffin), Mary Cleave, and Dwayne Brown. Griffin recorded my conversation with him (as did everyone at headquarters) and by the time I reached the others, it seemed that they had been briefed. They kept their boss scrupulously out of the picture, in spite of the many holes and contradictions this created in their stories—Cleave being the least convincing. It took me five months to breach that wall.
By then I was focusing on another chapter in the censorship story—an earlier clampdown that had preceded the 2004 presidential election—in which a young political appointee whose name I had not mentioned to Griffin, J.T. Jezierski, had played a minor and essentially innocent role. Part way through the call, I realized that J.T. had been Griffin’s deputy chief of staff and White House liaison in December 2005. Not showing my cards, I asked casually what had happened in the administrator’s suite on December 15th. J.T. remembered the day very well. He told me he had received an irate call from the White House that morning. He added that the "sustained media presence ... of Dr. Hansen" was the dominant issue all that day and the next for every top official in public affairs and communications at the agency—himself, chief of staff Paul Morrell, strategic communications director Joe Davis, and David Mould—and that these officials also held extensive discussions with Michael Griffin during those two days.
Six weeks later, when the story surfaced on the front page of the New York Times, Sherwood Boehlert, Republican head of the House Science Committee, started an investigation. On February 14th, 2006, Valentine’s Day, Boehlert’s chief of staff, David Goldston, met with Griffin, Mould, and other top NASA officials in Griffin’s Washington conference room. It turned out that there was a fragmentary electronic trail: the inexperienced Mr. Deutsch had sent some damaging e-mails. In this meeting, the top officials hung Deutsch out to dry, saying he had done everything on his own and lied to them all along. With the help of the news media, this became the conventional wisdom: that a young, rogue, Republican zealot had gone a bit too far. Griffin soon issued a Statement on Scientific Openness that did, admittedly, work a change in his agency—and came off the hero. This is a despicable fallacy.
"Particularly troublesome to us," reads the Inspector General’s report, "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."
One of the more outrageous claims that Mould and Acosta made during the Valentine’s Day meeting was that they had never received the e-mail from Mark Hess, quoted above. They admitted to making the phone calls, but they also denied strenuously that the e-mail accurately reflected either the content of the calls or NASA policy. This, in spite of the fact that Acosta had told a reporter from Space News only a week earlier that the e-mail was "pretty consistent" with NASA policy. He and Mould claimed that they had merely asked Leslie McCarthy to give them a heads up whenever something potentially newsworthy appeared on the horizon. (She had in fact given them a heads up about the temperature study, but that’s another story.)
Michael Griffin defended Mould and Acosta at every turn. House staffer David Goldston told me later, "It was clear that we were never going to get a story that was vaguely believable to us, and Mike [Griffin] was not being helpful. His goal really was to make peace, but largely by defending his guys ... and when it became clear to me that he was not trying to be an honest broker in the meeting ... I just decided to give up."
Griffin told me that he saw no reason to punish anyone, because he never saw "a piece of actual evidence." This was again untrue. Deutsch’s e-mails, which circulated among many of the administrator’s top aides, frequently mentioned Dean Acosta and the involvement of others in the administrator’s suite on the ninth floor of headquarters. Still, Griffin and his ninth-floor bunker-mates managed to paint the disagreement between Mould and Acosta, on the one hand, and Mark Hess and Leslie McCarthy, on the other, as a "he said/she said" and thereby stymie the Congressional investigation.
Consider the following paragraph from the Inspector General’s report:
"Despite statements to the contrary that Messrs. Mould and Acosta made either singularly or collectively to NASA senior leadership and Congressional staff—where they denied receipt of [Mark Hess’s] e-mail—Mr. Acosta (or someone operating his equipment) received it. Our forensic examination of his computer reflects that he received it at 2:19 p.m. on December 20, 2005. Shortly thereafter, he forwarded the e-mail to [Jason Sharp] the Deputy Press Secretary (also a participant in the December 15, 2005, teleconference) with the comment, "Take a look at this and let me know what you think?" [The forwarding was actually executed on Acosta’s Blackberry.] At 2:55 p.m., [Sharp] responded with some rewording of section 2 of the original e-mail. So, while two people deny receiving the e-mail, ... the evidence shows that it was received by one of them. Even accepting the remote possibility that the properly addressed e-mail was not delivered to Mr. Mould’s account, or that he deleted it without reviewing it, we question whether it is reasonable to believe that Mr. Acosta (who was Mr. Mould’s subordinate and whose computer clearly received and forwarded the e-mail, and who shared a contiguous office suite with Mr. Mould), would never have discussed this e-mail with Mr. Mould—especially given the seriousness of the issues discussed." (Elsewhere, the report states that "it defies logic that Mr. Acosta would not have discussed this subject with [Mr. Mould].")
In the course of their investigation, the Inspector General’s staff interviewed all six participants in the December 15th phone call: Mould, Acosta, Sharp, George Deutsch, Dwayne Brown, and Leslie McCarthy. All but Mould and Acosta agreed on the content of the call—and, by implication, that the e-mail was accurate. The report also observes that Acosta and Sharp must have thought the e-mail was essentially true when they first received it, since Sharp made only one small correction.
The Inspector General’s forensic examination of Mould’s computer was "inconclusive." By the time of the investigation, Mould had used two computers at NASA. The first had been " ‘wiped’ and only a minimal amount of data could be retrieved from that system." The "second computer ... was also examined, revealing gaps in the stored e-mails" for the critical weeks in question.
In advance of the Valentine’s Day meeting, a staffer at the House Science Committee had re-typed Hess’s e-mail and sent it to Griffin’s staff for review. According to the Inspector General’s report, "[A]t some point after receiving a copy of the questioned e-mail ... Messrs. Mould and Acosta met alone with [Jason Sharp] to discuss the questioned e-mail." "We found this meeting ... to be interesting," the report continues, "in that [Sharp] was not on the recipient list for the original e-mail. ... [D]espite the fact that Messrs. Mould and Acosta denied receiving the original e-mail, they called a meeting to discuss this e-mail with the same person to whom one of them had forwarded the original e-mail."
Let’s face it, this is solid evidence that Mould and Acosta lied to Congressional investigators and to the news media. And they continue to lie. Acosta, as I say, has left NASA, but Mould has retained his position for almost three years now, since the clampdown occurred, and continues to enjoy Michael Griffin’s active, even ferocious, support.
I "find it interesting" that the Inspector General’s report only goes so far. It is a step in the right direction, in that it climbs higher up the totem pole than Griffin’s staff and the House Science Committee did when they blamed everything on a hapless young subordinate, but it stops sharply at the border of the office of public affairs—an office that has no operational authority. Now, instead of a rogue twenty-four-year-old, we have two rogue senior managers. Are we seriously expected to believe that Mould and Acosta decided to censor scientists all on their own? When I look closely not only at this series of incidents but at others that I cover in my book, I find that the report has been sanitized of every detail that would in any way point not only toward Griffin’s involvement and that of his aides outside public affairs but of the two White House offices that have directed the censorship of climate science at NASA and other federal agencies throughout the Bush/Cheney years: the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Council on Environmental Quality. To choose the most blatant example, despite the crucial importance of Mark Hess’s e-mail, the report avoids quoting it with its damaging phrase "from the Administrator."
The report alludes to Mould and Acosta’s "mendacity." "In the face of strong evidence to the contrary," it reads, "the collective body of senior NASA Public Affairs Officials continued to deny to our investigators, congressional staff, and senior NASA management, the existence of any type of suppression, censorship or improper interference. (Mr. Acosta described such allegations as ‘ridiculous.’)"
It is not only NASA public affairs officials who have displayed mendacity. When I spoke to Michael Griffin in January 2007, he claimed that his staff had done a thorough internal investigation and found that no one at NASA, even George Deutsch, had done anything wrong. He even claimed that Deutsch was not disciplined, that his departure had nothing to do with censorship: "George was confronted with the fact that ... he had lied on his résumé and he resigned." When I reminded Griffin that his second-in-command, Deputy Administrator Shana Dale, had told the House investigators in Griffin’s presence during the Valentine’s Day meeting that Deutsch had been confronted with his e-mails and the lies he had told about them and fired, Griffin responded, "I don’t recall that."
I am actually impressed at how far the Inspector General’s report went, because there was every reason to expect a total white wash. As I reported in my book, e-mails indicate that the Inspector General himself, Robert Cobb, played golf with Griffin’s predecessor, Sean O’Keefe, and tipped him off about pending audits. Inside the agency, Cobb had a reputation for retaliating against whistleblowers and blowing their covers when his mandate was to support and protect them. A long investigation by the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency—during the Bush/Cheney years—revealed that Cobb had quashed a report on the Columbia shuttle disaster that would have been embarrassing to the agency. When the Council’s report led three lawmakers to call for Cobb’s ouster, Griffin defended him with the same argument he had used to shield Mould and Acosta, that the report did not "contain evidence of a lack of integrity on the part of Mr. Cobb." With his sanitized report Mr. Cobb seems to have protected Griffin and two White House offices, likewise.
I have spoken to dozens of people who were touched by the brutal censorship campaign that took place at NASA until Jim Hansen’s actions brought it to a halt. All but the political appointees were dying to tell their stories. They expressed many regrets, much pain, and a sense of shame that this had occurred at the agency they love. Few were vindictive, although many hoped that the bad apples might be removed, so that the atmosphere of fear and loathing would lift and NASA might recover its integrity. It seemed that it helped these people to be allowed to tell the truth, that it was a healthy exercise in truth and reconciliation. It is true that the censorship mostly ended after Hansen brought it public, but the lies continue to fester. An inquiry that calls the senior players, including Griffin, to testify under oath and the threat of perjury but without fear of retribution would probably help heal the deep wounds that still remain.
But, in any event, Michael Griffin must go. After deep reflection, I come to the conclusion that he almost certainly authorized the restrictive policies that David Mould and Dean Acosta delivered to Leslie McCarthy and Mark Hess by phone three years ago, and that these policies were rescinded two months later not because Griffin found them distasteful, but because his staff had been caught—and he might be, too. I suspect that the reason for Griffin’s continued radical stand in defense of his top two, obviously guilty, public affairs officials is that if a full investigation, scrutinizing all the details, were ever undertaken, his own responsibility for one of the most bare-knuckled acts of censorship during the Bush/Cheney years would be made perfectly clear.