Welcome to NOW.
I'm going to do you a favor. Enough with John Roberts, the Supreme Court nominee, at least for this very moment.
Here's a fresh issue crucial to our democracy. Let's look at what happens when hard science collides with hardball politics.
We're talking about the science behind key government decisions that affect everything from the air we breathe to the quality of the foods we eat.
Here's the question: Are government policy makers "bending" the results of scientific reports so as to fit their agenda? That's exactly what we're hearing from a number of people who worked inside of government.
Correspondent Michele Mitchell and producer
Brenda Breslauer have our story.
MICHELE MITCHELL: There are hundreds of millions of acres of public lands across the United States. Public, meaning for everyone. Hunters, fishermen and hikers share the terrain with industries like logging, mining and cattle ranching.
Two hundred and sixty million of those acres in the West are overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. In the states where cattle graze on public lands, the BLM must balance the competing interests of ranchers, whose herds roam the lan, and the integrity of the terrain itself…ensuring that wildlife is protected. Two years ago, the BLM set out to revise its cattle grazing regulations.
It's gotta be regulated. We're managing these for future generations. I mean, these are for your kids and grandkids and their grandkids.
MICHELE MITCHELL: Erick Campbell is a biologist who spent his thirty year career at the Bureau of Land Management before retiring in February. Campbell was part of the scientific team assigned to report on the environmental impacts of cattle grazing for the new regulation.
ERICK CAMPBELL: They got my original draft. And they assembled all the drafts from around the bureau. And someone back in the Washington office read it, and they went, "Holy moly." And they didn't-they-they did not like my section.
MICHELE MITCHELL: Campbell says that his conclusion that the effect of the proposed regulation would be detrimental to wildlife and endangered species was edited out …replaced with conclusions that the cattle industry and the Bush administration wanted.
Long-term, adverse impact. That's what you wrote?
And this was changed to what?
Their rewrite had it that "thus in the long run, wildlife may benefit from this provision," or "the changes under the proposed regulations are expected to have no effect on special-status species," etc. And there's actually a point in there where they say it will be positive for animals.
So let me get this straight: you wrote that this was going to have a long-term adverse impact for animals, and then this was changed to it's going to benefit animals?
That's a big edit.
That's called a 180.
MICHELE MITCHELL: Grazing regulations are the only latest battle in a larger war one between science and public policy. A number of government science programs are on a collision course with the political priorities of the Bush administration. It's a battle where, insiders say, politically inconvenient facts and research are often ignored, altered or suppressed.
Bill Brookes is hydrologist who retired in January after 25 years with the BLM. He evaluated the effects of cattle grazing on water resources for the same Environmental Impact Study, or EIS.
Did you write the part the says there will be I'm quoting here no impact on water resources?
Absolutely not. From what I wrote, to what came out in the draft EIS is the difference between night and day.
MICHELE MITCHELL: When Brookes, the only hydrologist on the study, submitted his draft raising an alarm about additional pollution to streams from cattle grazing, he says he was removed from the project. The report's final conclusions on water quality, he says, were the opposite of what he had written.
But your name is on that report?
Uh-huh. And that's the sticker. Because I feel like it impugns my character, my professionalism, and you know, it's a defamation of my personal and professional character. It's unacceptable.
MICHELE MITCHELL: The Bureau of Land Management declined our request for an interview. But a spokesman did tell us that the conclusions by Brookes and Campbell "were found to be based on personal opinion and unsubstantiated assertions rather than sound environmental analysis."
ERICK CAMPBELL: All the science they extracted from my narrative was peer-reviewed science. This was not gray literature. It wasn't from some farmer's journal in, you know, Elee, Nevada. This was peer-reviewed science in major journals.
MICHELE MITCHELL: The BLM says the rewrites were done by other agency specialists and that the changes were based on good science.
Show me the science. Show me the science. And that's one of the things that's typical of this administration. If you come up and make some kind of pronouncement, you know, about science, they're gonna say it's flawed, it's flawed science, it was not a good study.
Don't you think someone sitting at home could say, "Well, it's easy for this guy to talk bad about the administration. He likes birds. He's a greenie. He's a liberal. I mean, this is what he does."
I've been a registered Republican since 1969. And I don't think I'm a greenie. I'm a conservationist. I think we oughta be conserving all the natural resources we have here for future generations. That doesn't mean don't use it. It means conserve it. Use it wisely. That's where I come from.
MICHELE MITCHELL: And it wasn't just Brookes and Campbell whose conclusions were dismissed by the BLM. Experts from the Fish and Wildlife Service also warned, among other things, that "these changes could have profound impacts on wildlife resources." Those comments never made it into the final report.
Another federal agency, the EPA, also warned the BLM. Like Bill Brookes, the EPA raised concerns about the potential for degradation of water quality.
In my 30 years with the federal government, this is the worst administration I've seen for squashing science and rewriting it at will.
KEVIN KNOBLOCH: About a year ago, February, scientists from across the country were alerting us that they were concerned about the abuse of science in a number of key federal agencies.
MICHELE MITCHELL: Kevin Knobloch is the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that has been monitoring what it calls the misuse of science by the Bush administration.
KEVIN KNOBLOCH:: Scientists in the federal agencies who are supported by our tax dollars are among the best in the world, doing the best science that they can do. And as that science comes up the chain to the political appointees in a number of these agencies, it is being rewritten and altered.
RICK PILTZ: This Administration is impeding the flow of honest scientific communication.
MICHELE MITCHELL: Rick Piltz says he's seen it first-hand. For the past decade, he's edited reports on global warming for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.
RICK PILTZ: Through suppressing information, through distorting information, this Administration, is misinforming the public about the nature of the climate change problem.
MICHELE MITCHELL: There's a growing body of evidence that temperatures are rising, glaciers melting, and oceans warming. Just last month the National Academies of Sciences from eleven countries said "the threat of climate change is clear and increasing" and called for "prompt action." Yet at the G8 Summit this month, President Bush again rejected the call for setting mandatory limits on carbon emissions. The administrations' consistent position has been more study is needed.
PRESIDENT BUSH: We want to know more about it. It's easier to solve a problem when you know a lot about it. And if you look at the statistics, you'll find the United States has taken the lead.
RICK PILTZ: The science is great, but they don't use it. They'll point to how much money they spend on it. But when it gives them a message that doesn't fit with their political preconceptions, they turn away from it.
MICHELE MITCHELL: Piltz says the administration would alter government reports when scientific findings didn't conform to the White House position on climate change.
RICK PILTZ: If the document was already out, they would suppress further references to it. It would have to go through them, they would manipulate it. If they didn't like what it said, they would ignore it.
MICHELE MITCHELL: In Pitlz's case, global warming reports from his office went to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which crafts administration policies on the environment. Those reports were altered by the Council Chief of Staff, Phil Cooney. Before coming to the White House, Cooney worked as a lobbyist for the oil industry. He had been the "climate team leader" at the industry's main trade group, the American Petroleum Institute.
RICK PILTZ: The fox guarding the hen house aspect of it was so blatant. I mean, you had somebody who was essentially an oil industry lobbyist, who now is the White House environmental policy maven.
MICHELE MITCHELL: Piltz says that Cooney's changes on behalf of the White House were part of a pattern to exaggerate the uncertainty about global warming and its impacts. For example, Piltz cites this draft of a 2003 report to Congress.
The original version says the "Earth is undergoing a period of relatively rapid change." Cooney changes it to a more tentative "may be undergoing a period of rapid change."
MICHELE MITCHELL: So this relatively innocuous- looking edit change you're saying is really a big deal.
RICK PILTZ: It is when you do it over and over again on all communications about the issue.
MICHELE MITCHELL: Which is what Piltz said happened in report after report.
RICK PILTZ: He's crossed out "shown that." Crossed out "confirmed that." He's crossed out demonstrated.
MICHELE MITCHELL: And then there's this draft of another report to Congress. Text written by the science program says "warming will also cause reductions in mountain glaciers…" and goes on. Cooney crosses it all out.
RICK PILTZ: And it's deleted with the comment "straying from research strategy into speculative findings/musings here."
Well, I have to tell you, I write. I write books. I get edited all the time. I get manuscripts back that are marked up as well. I mean, isn't this what the guy's supposed to do?
Well, what is an oil industry lobbyist doing, coming in on the science program document, and taking out stuff that is being taken out, to me, it seems, because it conveys a way of talking and thinking about the subject that just doesn't suit the White House politically?
MYRON EBELL: It's CEQ's job, Council on Environmental Quality, to make sure that these reports are filed in a timely manner and represent what the Administration has done and what the Administration's position is.
MICHELE MITCHELL: Myron Ebell is the Director of Global Climate Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a public policy organization that gets part of its funding from Exxon-Mobile. Ebell defends the editing work that Cooney did.
MYRON EBELL: It seems to me that what Phil Cooney did was exactly what his job required of him and he did it in a totally appropriate way.
KNOBLOCH: He is a non-scientist. And he was not simply editing a policy statement. He was going in and altering the conclusions of scientific analysis to mean something quite different than what they-- the scientists meant to say.
MYRON EBELL: Ebell says it's right to question the results of government funded science because scientists have an interest in holding on to their funding.
MYRON EBELL: Elected office holders are often expected to take what scientist say at face value as if, you know, the oracle has spoken. But, it isn't always the case. I mean, scientists have self interested motives. They're not always right.
RICK PILTZ: I mean scientific integrity is-- should be-- have bipartisan support. But, I don't know, this global warming is so politicized, it's almost part of the culture war.
MICHELE MITCHELL: Rick Piltz had enough of that war. In March, he quit his job.
RICK PILTZ: It was undermining the credibility and integrity of the probram. It became just an impossible environment to work in, And I finally just one day said, "that's it."
MICHELE MITCHELL: His story, and the news of Phil Cooney's edits, hit the front page of the NEW YORK TIMES last month. Just two days later, Cooney quit his job too. He left the White House for Exxon Mobile.
This is a poster child case for the revolving door. Philip Cooney came from the American Petroleum Institute to be the Chief of Staff at the leading White House agency responsible for protecting the environment and the public health, the health of Americans.
It should come as no surprise that the Bush administration, which is not very sympathetic to most of the positions of the major environmental groups has looked to fill their positions from people who have relevant expertise from companies and trade associations and places like that. They have to come from somewhere.
MICHELE MITCHELL: Phil Cooney, who begins his job at Exxon in the fall, did not respond to our request for an interview. The White House would say only this:
SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY, CNN: We wish him well. We appreciate his service.
MICHELE MITCHELL: Administration officials maintain that the climate program reports were scientifically sound. In fact, the program director, a scientist, signed off on them.
As for those controversial grazing rules, despite the warnings of scientists about harm to land and wildlife, the BLM went in a different direction. It's adopting changes that actually make it harder to restrict grazing on America's public lands.
ERICK CAMPBELL: I think the American public needs to hear what's happening to their public lands. That's their public lands. You've got 300 million people. And it's their public lands.
I don't like the fact that the science, the work that my peers and my mentors, the folks that I worked with from the Forest Service 35, 40 years ago, that most of them the good Lord's taken. And the people that are still working. All that we've done to try to improve the plight of the public lands is backsliding.
Does this topic of science-meets-politics catch your interest? If so, you might want to apply for some consulting work over at the Environmental Protection Agency. THE NEW YORK TIMES got ahold of an EPA proposal to hire outside PR experts. The job in part: to edit and ghostwrite quote "good" stories about EPA research in both scholarly journals and popular magazines. Five million dollars over five years is on offer. The EPA says it's about making info accessible to the public.
The Harper'S Index in HARPER's magazine recently mentioned the amount the Bush administration spends on outside PR contracts: answer, more than 62 million dollars per year. That's almost twice the amount spent per year during during the second Clinton administration.