Jackson Memo Leaves EPA Response on Openness in Doubt

January 26, 2011

A December 17, 2010, White House scientific integrity memo left in its wake uncertainty about what, if anything, federal executive branch agencies must do about reporters’ requests to interview scientists.

EPA critics interpreted a December 21, 2010, memo from EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson to suggest EPA planned no policy changes in response to the White House memo. EPA has not yet responded to requests from the WatchDog for comment. The Jackson memo to all EPA employees was made public January 24, 2011, by the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

At issue is whether agency scientists and employees are allowed to talk to reporters without advance permission from the press office at EPA or other agencies — and Saddam-style "minders" from the press office to supervise the interview. The Dec. 17 memo to all agencies from John Holdren, head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), left that point unclear. It seemed to suggest that federal agencies should come up with science integrity and openness policies. It also seemed to suggest that agencies could do almost anything they wanted.

PEER read the Dec. 21 Jackson memo as implying that existing EPA openness policy met White House criteria, and did not mention any further action as forthcoming. EPA does not have an official written press policy that applies to the entire agency.

EPA provided a statement in response to PEER's criticism. It follows:

"Since becoming the EPA Administrator, Administrator Jackson has made clear that policies and actions would be guided by science, and that commitment is clear by the steps EPA has taken under her leadership. EPA is always working to reinforce this commitment, which is why in response to Dr. Holdren's memo, a workgroup of the Agency's Science and Technology Policy Council — a group of scientists and others pulled together from across the Agency to address these issues — has worked to determine what more may need to be done to ensure the integrity of the science that underpins our efforts to protect Americans' health."

"The OSTP memo also provided a 90-day period for Agencies to review their policies and propose a path forward, and we look forward to providing our input prior to the end of that period."

Although signed by Holdren as President Obama's chief science advisor, the policy appears to have been largely dictated by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has authority to approve any marching orders from OSTP to the agencies. OMB, according to documents released by PEER, held the policy up for more than a year past the president's deadline because it was not happy with the policy.

OMB, an agency with very little science expertise, has had a record in previous administrations of tampering with agency science for political purposes. Those charges have persisted during the Obama administration. Journalism groups, including the Society of Environmental Journalists, have called for unfettered communication between journalists and agency scientists in order to get scientific findings and opinions undistorted by politics.

KEY CONGRESSMAN COMPLAINS OF COVER-UP

A key Democratic congressman accused OMB anew on January 25, 2011, of censoring agency science. Raúl Grijalva (AZ), a high-ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, had asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the US Coast Guard, and the US Geological Survey for information on how they arrived at their mid-summer estimate of how much oil had spilled from BP's Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico. The agencies initially ignored this Congressional information request, and later sent Grijalva documents that had been heavily blacked out.

Such redactions may be common when agencies respond to FOIA requests from the public, but are rarer in response to queries from Congress on matters that are not classified. Grijalva sent a letter of complaint January 25, 2011, to President Obama.

"As president, you have promised heightened levels of transparency and accountability," Grijalva wrote. "I am therefore disappointed to see that NOAA's response to my request involved unjustifiable redactions to many of the transmitted documents, including entire pages blacked out in the middle of pertinent e-mail conversations."

"As you know," Grijalva's letter continued, "presidential assertions of confidentiality in the face of legitimate congressional inquiries have been viewed skeptically by the courts over the past several decades. I believe NOAA's redactions violate the spirit and principle of the accountability you promised. These redactions are unacceptable and overreaching."

Among the White House entities censoring the estimate of oil flow was OMB. Grijalva's investigation raises questions about what role a BP scientist may have had in changing estimates of oil flow before the report was released. BP has a direct financial stake in flow estimates, since the dollar penalties it pays depends on how much oil spilled. Grijalva notes that the BP scientist's possible role in censoring the documents was itself censored by the Obama administration.

A similar letter of complaint to the White House came from the non-profit Project on Government Oversight (POGO), which claimed to have a series of e-mails showing that administration PR goals had trumped science in the oil spill estimate.