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ICG Risk Blog - [ Grasping the third rail of administration and Christian censorship ]

Grasping the third rail of administration and Christian censorship

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Part 2

Touching administration and Christian censorship invites attack from those who are all too ready to condemn Muslim censorship, but failure to address censorship at home while condemning it abroad is hypocrisy.

Bob Barr, former Republican congressman and former Clinton impeachment manager, is enduring just such hypocrisy at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) where he is being ostracized by fellow conservatives for stating that "President Bush is breaking the law by eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without warrants." ("Whether it's a sitting president when I was an impeachment manager, or a Republican president who has taken liberties with adherence to the law, to me the standard is the same." Barr's issue was essential, "whether or not we will remain a nation subject to and governed by the rule of law or the whim of men." Barr then proceeded to force one of the authors of the USA Patriot Act, Viet Dinh, to admit that the administration's argument rested on faith.)

Readers should not presume to position me leftward of my center-right position. My issue is accurate, free flows of information, constrained and distorted by none.

The White House Staff: Inside the West Wing and Beyond states that a president controls "over 6,400 appointments to the executive and judicial branches… 1,800 of whom will be subject to scrutiny and confirmation by the Senate." Beyond that, the White House staff will "oversee closely the choice of some or all of the 2,148 full-time, noncareer jobholders appointed by his cabinet and agency heads. By vetting the candidates, balancing the pluses and minuses, the Office of Presidential Personnel helps prepare the chief for his decisions."

The White House Appointments page states, in part, that:

One of President Bush's top priorities is to select men and women of the greatest ability and highest ethical and professional integrity to serve in policymaking and key administrative positions in his administration... "I will look for people who are willing to work hard to do what is best for America, who examine the facts and do what is right whether or not it is popular. I will look for people from across the country and from every walk of life..."

The vetting process is excruciatingly detailed. One expects that an administration gets largely what it wants from its appointees. I am distressed by a pattern of administration shaping and shielding of information executed by these appointees that is an issue not of national security but of political party preference and advantage. (These actions have risen to the point that one wonders if the administration thinks of the quid pro quo of an eventual change in leadership.) This note is largely devoted to this form of censorship. In no particular order:

(1) Attacks upon the scientific base

[P]olitical action by scientists has not been so forceful since 1964, when Barry Goldwater's statements promoting the deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons spawned the creation of the 100,000-member group Scientists and Engineers for Johnson.

"Unlike previous administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, the Bush administration has ignored unbiased scientific advice in the policy making that is so important to our collective welfare," said 48 Nobel laureates in 2004. The critics include members of past Republican administrations.

Scientists in and out of federal service have criticized the administration with rising intensity, "saying it has selected or suppressed research findings to suit preset policies, skewed advisory panels or ignored unwelcome advice, and quashed discussion within federal research agencies." Complaints about the "administration's approach to scientific information are coming even from within the government. Many career scientists and officials have expressed frustration and anger privately but were unwilling to be identified for fear of losing their jobs."

I agree with the administration's position that the "executive branch has every right to sift for inconsistencies and adjust the tone to suit its policies, as long as the result remains factual." I also agree that medical and environmental issues face difficult trials in the policy arena due to the complexity of their disciplines. All sides agree that "the war between science and the administration is a culture clash." My opinion is that the pertinent facts are being subsumed by policy such that the facts put forward are 'policy friendly.'

Yes, there may be "unrealistic expectations" on the part of some researchers" while others may be bitter over "their being excluded from policy circles that were open to them under previous administrations," but I think that the latter condition is another symptom of a lack of interest on the part of the administration to reach out for legitimate dialog. Following are themes in the distortion of science:

  • Cherry picking data to suit policy

Dr. James E. Hansen, NASA's premier climate expert, has said that the "Bush administration [is] they're picking and choosing information according to the answer that they want to get, and they've appointed so many people who are just focused on this that they really are having an impact on the day-to-day flow of information."

Disputes between scientists and the administration have erupted over stem cell policy, population control and Iraq's nuclear weapons research. But nowhere has the clash been more intense or sustained than in the area of climate change. There the intensity of the disagreements has been stoked not only by disputes over claimed distortion or suppression of research findings, but on the other side by the enormous economic implications.

Several dozen interviews with administration officials and with scientists in and out of government, along with a variety of documents, show that the core of the clash is over instances in which scientists say that objective and relevant information is ignored or distorted in service of pre-established policy goals. Scientists were essentially locked out of important internal White House debates; candidates for advisory panels were asked about their politics as well as their scientific work; and the White House exerted broad control over how scientific findings were to be presented in public reports or news releases.

  • Touting bogus information

In March 2001, the White House used a single flawed Department of Energy (DoE) economic analysis to permit Bush43 to sidestep a campaign pledge to restrict power plant discharges of carbon dioxide. (Other branches of DoE drawing different conclusions were ignored as were Environmental Protection Agency climate experts at the was sought but also ignored.):

None of the authors was a scientist. The team consisted of Cesar Conda, an adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and now a political consultant; Andrew Lundquist, the White House energy policy director, who is now an energy lobbyist; Kyle E. McSlarrow, the chairman of Dan Quayle's 2000 presidential campaign and now deputy secretary of energy; Robert C. McNally Jr., an energy and economic analyst who is now an investment banker; Karen Knutson, a deputy on energy policy and a former Republican Senate aide; and Marcus Peacock, an analyst on science and energy issues from the Office of Management and Budget. They concluded that Mr. Bush could continue to say he believed that global warming was occurring but make a case that ''any specific policy proposals or approaches aimed at addressing global warming must await further scientific inquiry.''

The administration has not changed its position despite subsequent reaffirmation of the "scientific consensus that recent warming has human causes and that significant risks lie ahead."

  • The shell game of assumptions

Critical differences exist between the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations in that while both "tried to skew information to favor [their climate] policies," the Clinton administration revealed all its underlying assumptions while the "Bush administration drew contorted conclusions but never revealed the details." Combine a dearth of assumptions with selected data and all manner of mischief is possible.

  • Sexing up the text

Political appointees incrementally remake fact to fit policy:

Political appointees have regularly revised news releases on climate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, altering headlines and opening paragraphs to play down the continuing global warming trend. The changes are often subtle, but they consistently shift the meaning of statements away from a sense that things are growing warmer in unusual ways.

Titles such as "Cool Antarctica May Warm Rapidly This Century, Study Finds" are softened to "Study Shows Potential for Antarctic Climate Change;" "NOAA reports record and near-record July heat in the West, cooler than average in the East, global temperature much warmer than average" becomes "NOAA reports cooler, wetter than average in the East, hot in the West."

More significant than such changes has been the scope and depth of involvement by administration appointees in controlling information flowing through the farthest reaches of government on issues that could undermine policies.

Jeffrey Ruch, who runs Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a network for whistle-blowers who identify government actions that violate environmental laws or rules, said the Bush administration had taken information control to a level far beyond that of its predecessor... It's very controlled in the sense that almost no decision, even personnel decisions, can be made without clearance from the top. In the realm of science that becomes problematic, because science isn't neat like that."

  • Litmus tests/loyalty oaths for participation

Another area where the issue of scientific distortion keeps surfacing is in the composition of advisory panels. In a host of instances documented in news reports and by groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists, candidates have been asked about their politics. In March 2003, the American Association for the Advancement of Science criticized those queries, saying in a statement that the practice ''compromises the integrity of the process of receiving advice and is inappropriate.'' Despite three years of charges that it is remaking scientific and medical advisory panels to favor the goals of industry or social conservatives, the White House has continued to ask some panel nominees not only about their political views, but explicitly whether they support Mr. Bush.

Nominated for the Arctic Research Commission, a panel of appointees dealing with Arctic issues "including the debate over oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," Sharon L. Smith was called by the White House office of presidential personnel. The first question was, "Do you support the president?" Never having been asked such a question in her career, Smith replied that she was not fond of the administration's economic and foreign policies. "That was the end of the interview. I was removed from consideration instantly."

  • Muzzling and censoring in-house scientists

James E. Hansen, a physicist and "longtime director of the agency's Goddard Institute for Space Studies" and the "top climate scientist at NASA" has publicly stated that the "administration has tried to stop him from speaking out since he gave a lecture… calling for prompt reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming."

Since 1988, he has been issuing public warnings about the long-term threat from heat-trapping emissions, dominated by carbon dioxide, that are an unavoidable byproduct of burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels. He has had run-ins with politicians or their appointees in various administrations, including [Bush41 and Clinton]. Hansen was invited to brief "Cheney and other cabinet members on climate change [after officials voiced interest in his findings] showing that cleaning up soot [was] was an effective and far easier first step than curbing carbon dioxide."

[Hansen] fell out of favor with the White House in 2004 after giving a speech… before the presidential election, in which he complained that government climate scientists were being muzzled, and said he planned to vote for Senator John Kerry. But Dr. Hansen said that nothing in 30 years equaled the push made since early December [2005] to keep him from publicly discussing what he says are clear-cut dangers from further delay in curbing carbon dioxide. [Hansen] was particularly incensed that the directives affecting his statements had come through informal telephone conversations and not through formal channels, leaving no significant trails of documents."

After Hansen gave a 6 December speech stating that the "administration's policy [to] use voluntary measures [will] slow, but not reverse, the growth of emissions" but that "significant emission cuts could be achieved with existing technologies, particularly in the case of motor vehicles," followed by his releasing data "that 2005 was probably the warmest year in at least a century, officials at the headquarters of the space agency repeatedly phoned public affairs officers, who relayed the warning to Dr. Hansen that there would be "dire consequences" if such statements continued, those officers and Dr. Hansen said in interviews."

Hansen has stated that he will ignore the restrictions. Others are not so fortunate:

At climate laboratories of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, many scientists who routinely took calls from reporters five years ago can now do so only if the interview is approved by administration officials in Washington, and then only if a public affairs officer is present or on the phone.

  • Reverse the decision, or make the decision before analysis is complete

The FDA's "own nonprescription drugs advisory committee and its review staff recommended approval" of an "application by Barr Laboratories to sell its Plan B contraceptive over the counter [OTC] without restrictions." In May 2004, the FDA's former acting director, Dr. Steven Galson, rejected that application in an unusual decision process that the GAO described as "the Plan B decision was not typical of the other 67 proposed" changes from prescription to over-the-counter sales that the agency received from 1994 through 2004:

On May 6, 2004, the Acting Director of CDER [Center for Drug Evaluation and Research] rejected the recommendations of FDA’s joint advisory committee and FDA review officials by signing the not-approvable letter for the Plan B switch application. While FDA followed its general procedures for considering the application, four aspects of FDA’s review process were unusual.

Uncommon indeed:

  • FDA senior management was more involved in the review of Plan B than in other OTC switch applications.
  • Directors normally responsible for signing the Plan B action letter, including the Director of the Office of New Drugs, disagreed with the decision and did not sign the not-approvable letter for Plan B.
  • GAO "suggested that top F.D.A. officials had discussed turning down the application for over-the-counter sales of Plan B as early as December 2003, even though its advisory panels had not yet weighed in."
  • Rationale for the Acting Director’s decision was "novel and did not follow FDA’s traditional practices."

Plan B has "been available with a prescription since 1999, but over-the-counter status would increase access to this time-sensitive contraceptive. If available over the counter, Plan B could prevent half of the three million unwanted pregnancies that occur every year in the United States and significantly reduce the number of abortions." Detractors say that politics and religious sentiment weighed heavily in the rejection.

Part 4

Bob Barr, Bane of the Right?
By Dana Milbank
February 11, 2006
Washington Post

NASA Administrator Calls for Openness in Statement to Staff
By Christopher Lee
Washington Post
February 5, 2006

Climate Expert Says NASA Tried to Silence Him
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
New York Times

January 29, 2006

F.D.A.'s Rejection of Contraceptive Is Questioned
By MARIA NEWMAN
New York Times
November 14, 2005

Decision Process to Deny Initial Application for Over-the-Counter Marketing of the Emergency Contraceptive Drug Plan B Was Unusual
General Accounting Office
GAO-06-109
November 2005

What Went Wrong: A Primer on How Vetting Is Supposed to Work
By Justin Rood, CQ Staff
CQ Homeland Security
Congressional Quarterly
December 13, 2004
Mirror on Page Fifteen

Bush vs. the Laureates: How Science Became a Partisan Issue
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
New York Times
October 19, 2004

Scientific Integrity in Policy Making [Update]
Investigation of the Bush administration's abuse of science
By The Union of Concerned Scientists
Update - July 2004

Scientific Integrity in Policy Making
Investigation of the Bush administration's abuse of science
By The Union of Concerned Scientists
March 2004

Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?
From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern
by Bruno Latour
Critical Inquiry
Volume 30, no. 2
Winter 2004

The White House Office of Presidential Personnel.(selecting presidential staff)
Article from: Presidential Studies Quarterly [HTML]
by Bradley H. Patterson, James P. Pfiffner
September 2001

The White House Staff: Inside the West Wing and Beyond - Book Review
White House Studies, Fall, 2002 by Robert P. Watson

The White House Staff: Inside the West Wing and Beyond
Bradley H. Patterson
Brookings Institution Press, 2000

Gordon Housworth



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