Muzzled or Misunderstood?

A public relations scandal rocks NASA.

James Hansen was just a highly regarded climatologist until he warned last December that Earth could become a "different planet" if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced significantly in the next 10 years. Today, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York is something of a folk hero for speaking his mind about global warming and tangling with a White House appointee who tried to shut him up.

The appointee, junior spokesman George Deutsch, 24, resigned in February, and Hansen's name and face were ubiquitous in newspapers and on TV news for weeks afterward. There's even a new term for what can happen to federal scientists when nonscientists jump into the fray: They risk getting Hansenized.

"It is not appropriate for scientists at a . . . federal executive agency to be required to adjust, spin, alter, frame, the tone of their scientific work to fit any particular political agenda," says NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. "And by the way," he told reporters after a hearing before the House Science Committee on Feb. 16, "we don't think NASA's doing that."

Political appointees at the top of NASA's public affairs organization say there's no stifling of scientists. "This is just a big, bureaucratic misunderstanding, but we are clarifying our policies to make sure we have clear and open communications at NASA," says the assistant administrator for public affairs, David Mould, a former reporter and editor for United Press International.

According to Mould, who's been trying to streamline procedures for news releases and infuse them with Associated Press style since joining NASA in June 2005, the recent confusion and discomfort stemmed from NASA's "cumbersome" editing and approval process. "There are just too many cooks in the kitchen," he says.

Mould vehemently denies any White House interference. Nevertheless, a committee of senior executives is revising NASA's public affairs rule book, which did not specifically prohibit political interference in the handling of news and science information. "We're looking to see if there are any other such instances," the administrator says.

The hubbub started with a lecture Hansen gave to the American Geophysical Union's 2005 fall meeting in San Francisco. "Humans now control global climate, for better or worse," he said in prepared remarks that accompanied data showing 2005 tied with 1998 as the warmest year on record.

Soon there came "a series of phone calls from NASA . . . demanding restrictions on my communications with the media," Hansen says. "The restrictions on me, I now realize, were illegal." According to internal memos the scientist provided to Government Executive, political appointees running NASA's public affairs organization in Washington reacted to the speech and subsequent TV appearances by directing staff to monitor Hansen's speaking schedule, news interviews, scientific papers and Web postings. Hansen says they threatened "dire consequences" if he didn't stop voicing his contrarian ideas.

Instead of zipping his lips, Hansen talked to the press. The 39-year NASA veteran told reporters he's been the target of Bush administration censors at least since October 2004. Days before the presidential election that year, in a speech at his alma mater, Iowa State University, Hansen said he would vote for John Kerry because the Democratic challenger understood global warming issues better than the incumbent president did. His comments sparked a controversy that simmered quietly until January 2006, when Hansen accused Deutsch of limiting reporters' access to him.

Deutsch went to NASA from a position on the Bush reelection campaign. News accounts detailed multiple missteps in NASA's Science Mission Directorate: Deutsch instructed a NASA Web site contractor to insert the word "theory" after every reference to the Big Bang. Mould notes the AP Stylebook does the same. Deutsch also is reported to have told a colleague that his job at the space agency was "to make the president look good."

Bad move, says Torie Clarke, author of Lipstick on a Pig: Winning in the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game (Free Press, February 2006). "If you work for an agency as a political appointee, you work for the entire country and for all people. So you should be, I believe, in your behavior at work, completely nonpartisan," says Clarke, who served as assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Deutsch admitted to news-talk radio WTAW-AM in College Station, Texas, on Feb. 9 that he lied on his résumé about getting a journalism degree from Texas A&M University in 2003. He also complained that scientists such as Hansen were pushing a "sky-is-falling" partisan agenda.

"There's no censorship here," Deutsch said during a lengthy interview. "They're out to get Republicans, they're out to get Christians, they're out to get people who are helping Bush - anybody they perceive as not sharing their agenda, they're out to get." In a March 8 e-mail, Hansen dismissed the claims as "nonsense."

The climatologist says Deutsch wasn't the "principal player" in the controversy. What's more, NASA isn't the only agency beset by allegations of scientific censorship. In surveys by the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass., more than a third of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration respondents and almost half of Fish and Wildlife Service respondents reported political interference in scientific determinations.

Federal lawmakers have heard similar complaints from scientists at those agencies and others, including the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency. "The idea that the problem began and ended with George Deutsch, that's not our position," says David Goldston, chief of staff for the House Science Committee. In the quest for scientific transparency, Goldston told reporters in February, "We're hoping that [NASA will] be the model agency."