Chief NOAA scientist launches probe into agency decision to side with Trump over its own experts on Dorian

Chief NOAA scientist launches probe into agency decision to side with Trump over its own experts on Dorian
President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, receives a briefing update on Hurricane Dorian as it approaches the U.S. mainland Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

The acting chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration informed colleagues in an email Sunday that he is launching an investigation into the agency's decision to side with President Donald Trump over its own scientists by issuing an unsigned statement backing Trump's claim that Hurricane Dorian posed a serious threat to Alabama.

Craig McLean told NOAA staff that the agency's decision to contradict the National Weather Service (NWS)—which corrected the president's erroneous assertion just 20 minutes after he first tweeted it last Sunday—was "political," a "danger to public safety," and possibly a violation of NOAA's ethics rules.

"The NWS Forecaster(s) corrected any public misunderstanding in an expert and timely way, as they should," McLean wrote in an email obtained by a Washington Post. "There followed, last Friday, an unsigned press release from 'NOAA' that inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the NWS forecaster. My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political."

McLean went on to call the content of the agency's unsigned statement "very concerning," warning that "it compromises the ability of NOAA to convey life-saving information necessary to avoid substantial and specific danger to public health and safety."

"If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster's warnings and products, that specific danger arises," said McLean.

Climate scientist Peter Gleick applauded the probe, tweeting that "politics must be kept out of science, and science must play a role in good policy."

"This is a step toward restoring that balance after the Trump administration has tried, relentlessly, to destroy it," said Gleick.

The investigation comes after NOAA's press release defending Trump prompted a furious response over the weekend from scientists and others both inside and outside the agency.

Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, the union that represents 4,000 NOAA employees, said Friday that his members were left "shocked, stunned, and irate" by the agency's statement.

"Never ever before has their management thrown them under the bus like this," Sobien told The Daily Beast. "These are the people risking their lives flying into hurricanes and putting out forecasts that save lives. Never before has their management undercut their scientifically sound reasoning and forecasts."

Trump sparked further outrage—and ridicule—last Wednesday by doubling down on his claim that Dorian posed a threat to Alabama. As Common Dreams reported, the president presented a government map that was altered by a Sharpie to include Alabama in the area threatened by Hurricane Dorian.

As the Post noted, doctoring government weather forecasts is against the law.

The Post highlighted 18 U.S. Code 2074, which reads: "Whoever knowingly issues or publishes any counterfeit weather forecast or warning of weather conditions falsely representing such forecast or warning to have been issued or published by the Weather Bureau, United States Signal Service, or other branch of the government service, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ninety days, or both.'"


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