Call for Openness at NASA Adds to Reports of Pressure


Top political appointees in the NASA press office exerted strong pressure during the 2004 presidential campaign to cut the flow of news releases on glaciers, climate, pollution and other earth sciences, public affairs officers at the agency say.

The disclosure comes nearly two weeks after the NASA administrator, Michael D. Griffin, called for "scientific openness" at the agency. In response to that, researchers and public affairs workers at the agency have described in fresh detail how political appointees altered or limited news releases on scientific findings that could have conflicted with administration policies.

Some examples have been reported to senior scientists and administrators who are assembling complaints as part of a review of communications policies demanded by Dr. Griffin, who became administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in April. Others have been described or provided to The New York Times.

Press officers, who were granted anonymity because they said they were still concerned for their jobs despite Dr. Griffin's call for openness, said much of the pressure in late 2004 was placed on Gretchen Cook-Anderson. At the time, Ms. Cook-Anderson was in charge of managing the flow of earth science news at NASA headquarters.

In a conference call with colleagues in October 2004, the colleagues said, she said that Glenn Mahone, then the assistant administrator for public affairs, had told her that a planned news conference on fresh readings by a new NASA satellite, Aura, that measures ozone and air pollution, should not take place until after the election.

In an e-mail message yesterday, Ms. Cook-Anderson, who now works as a writer and editor for NASA through a contractor, said, "While I can't discuss these matters, I won't disagree with that description of what took place."

Mr. Mahone has since left NASA. He did not return several calls seeking comment yesterday. Dean Acosta, a political appointee who was then Mr. Mahone's deputy and is now Dr. Griffin's press secretary, said he had never pressed Ms. Cook-Anderson to cut back on news releases. "I was not part of any meeting that would have been party to that," Mr. Acosta said.

But archives of news releases on the NASA headquarters Web site show a sharp change in the number of such releases, to 12 in 2005 from about four dozen in 2004, a figure that had helped lead to the pressure to cut back. (The figures do not count routine announcements of events like satellite launchings.)

Dr. Griffin announced the review of communications policies after complaints last month by James E. Hansen, the agency's top climate scientist, that political appointees were trying to stop him from speaking out on global warming. After those complaints were reported in The Times, other scientists and press officers came forward with similar stories.

In a more recent example of possible political pressure at the agency, press officers and scientists cited an e-mail message sent last July from NASA's headquarters to its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. It said a Web presentation describing the uncontroversial finding that Earth was a "warming planet" could not use the phrase "global warming." It is "standard practice," the message went on, to use the phrase "climate change."

NASA officials said the intent was to use the most general term to describe climate fluctuations. But other public affairs workers and some scientists at the agency called it an effort to avoid mentioning that global temperatures are rising.

The e-mail message was written by Erica Hupp, a civil servant at headquarters. She did not reply to several requests for comment, but several people who work with her, and others who preceded her in managing earth-science news in the office, said this was a standing unwritten order from political appointees in public affairs.

"There was this general understanding that when something in this field was written about that it was to be described as climate change and not global warming," said Elvia H. Thompson, who recently retired from the same office.

Some efforts to delay or alter news releases on earth science involving the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were reported last fall by Rosemary Sullivant, a writer working for NASA, to an ethics group at the laboratory and to David Baltimore, the president of the California Institute of Technology, which manages the laboratory.

Ms. Sullivant declined to discuss the matter, but yesterday, Charles Elachi, the director of the laboratory, said he and Dr. Baltimore had conferred about the complaints and determined that while such activities had occurred, there was no evidence they were still going on.

Dr. Elachi added that he had told public affairs officials at the laboratory that he wanted to know immediately about any future efforts to influence the tenor of science findings.

"I will contact headquarters and tell them that that will be an issue," he said.

The recent accusations of political interference appear to reflect an intensifying debate between a small but influential cluster of presidential appointees at NASA headquarters and longtime civil servants and career scientists dispersed at space agency research hubs around the country.

"The issue is where does science end and policy begin," said David Goldston, chief of staff to Representative Sherwood Boehlert, chairman of the House Science Committee.

The subject is likely to come up today at a NASA budget hearing before the Science Committee.

A central point of division within NASA is how much "openness" is appropriate when such expressions conflict with administration policy.

Last Thursday, in comments at the National Space Club in Washington, Dr. Griffin said the agency must ensure that its scientists can speak freely on the implications of their work for policy — as long as they do not imply they are representing NASA.

Answering a question, he described a divide within the agency between those seeking "to enforce a line between what's true and what to do about what's true" and experts at NASA with strong personal views.

"Some folks don't wish to observe that line," he said, according to a transcript provided by a NASA official. "And if they don't, as long as people speak as private citizens, my attitude is, let me hold your coat for you. You can get into that fray and get beat up. You just can't label it as an agency position."

David R. Mould, NASA's assistant administrator for public affairs and a political appointee, said none of the appointees had brought a political agenda to the agency.

"We've received no marching orders from anyone," Mr. Mould said.

Warren E. Leary contributed reporting for this article.