Top officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration violated the agency’s scientific integrity rules when they debased themselves to back up Donald Trump’s incorrect assertion that Hurricane Dorian could strike Alabama last year, an internal investigation has shown. Regardless, everyone involved appears to be bound to get off scot-free.
On September 1, 2019, Trump incorrectly tweeted that Dorian (“one of the largest hurricanes ever”) would hit Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. It was not, in fact, on track to hit Alabama. The Birmingham office of the National Weather Service, part of NOAA, quickly corrected the president on Twitter—only to be overruled by NOAA, which sent out an unattributed press release proclaiming the president correct. Trump also showed the media a copy of a Dorian forecast that had seemingly been doctored with a Sharpie (thus the moniker #Sharpiegate) to show the storm possibly on track to hit Alabama. This of course tracks with numerous other occasions in which officials have told obvious and embarrassing lies to cover for the president’s ego.
Internal documents supposedly showed that Tim Gallaudet, NOAA’s deputy administrator, nor Neil Jacobs, the acting NOAA administrator, had authorized the press release backing Trump—instead, the order reportedly came from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who issued threats to fire Jacobs and other top NOAA officials. Per the Washington Post, an inquiry conducted on NOAA’s behalf by the nonprofit National Academy of Public Administration now finds that Jacobs and NOAA deputy chief of staff / director of communications Julie Roberts committed at least two violations of scientific integrity rules in issuing the statement claiming NWS Birmingham was wrong.
The report concluded that neither official committed a violation when they issued media guidance that limited NOAA scientists from speaking openly to the media about the matter. But Jacobs and Roberts “intentionally, knowingly, or in reckless disregard” violated conduct and ethics sections of the NOAA Scientific Integrity Policy twice: First by refusing to let scientists in Birmingham review the statement pre-publication, and then by sending it out and “[compromising] NOAA’s integrity and reputation as an independent scientific agency.”
The report doesn’t call for anyone to be disciplined, but for NOAA and the Commerce Department to implement guidelines preventing inappropriate interference in scientific matters and provide additional, mandatory training in scientific integrity. According to the Post, the NPAA wasn’t allowed to interview Commerce Department officials, though it did urge the Commerce inspector general’s office to investigate any such future incidents
In letters included in the report, Jacobs and Roberts both denied wrongdoing. Jacobs wrote he did not believe the integrity policies covered social media posts and doubled down that it was accurate regardless; Roberts insisted that the statement was “produced by others outside of the agency” in the Commerce Department who were not bound by integrity policies and overruled any objections.
The total lack of any professional repercussions for any of the officials involved in this deeply asinine, humiliating incident has not gone down well.
“It will be clear to anyone reviewing the accounts captured in this highly credible, independent Scientific Integrity report that the political leaders who interfered in our emergency response system need to publicly apologize or resign,” Representative Paul Tonko, who alongside two NOAA staffers and a former agency administrator requested the investigation, told the Post in a statement.
UCS Center for Science and Democracy director and former NOAA official Andrew Rosenberg told the Post the fact there have been “absolutely no consequences” is “very disappointing.”
In a letter dated May 15, Acting NOAA chief scientist Craig McLean wrote that the “degree of damage is high, drew international media visibility and embarrassment, generated confusion with the public NOAA is charged to protect relating to immediate safety of live and property, and difficult to imagine a higher degree of insult.”
“While there may be found causes of sympathy for the oppressed and meek subordinates of domineering autocratic ogres, I hardly can find sympathy in this scintilla of an argument for clemency,” McLean wrote in the letter. “If not the single highest person in NOAA, who will stand for the Scientific Integrity of the agency and the trust our public needs to invest in our scientific process and products?”
The report does not shed any light on which goon at the White House was behind the whole Sharpie thing. Issuing fake weather reports with falsified U.S. government credentials is a crime, though it goes without saying there will probably be zero consequences for that either.