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Inquiry Sought on Agency Memo About Polar Bears, Climate Change

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 10, 2007

Two senior House Democrats demanded yesterday that Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne turn over documents to Congress in order to determine whether the administration was preventing federal scientists traveling abroad from discussing how global warming affects polar bears.

In a letter to Kempthorne, Bart Gordon (Tenn.), chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, and Brad Miller (N.C.), chairman of the investigations and oversight subcommittee, questioned why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a directive that has stirred protests from environmentalists.

This "appears to be the latest effort by the Bush Administration to block a full and free discussion of issues relating to climate change by the scientific community," they wrote.

The internal memo was sent to the wildlife agency's Alaska division under the heading "Foreign Travel -- New Requirement -- Please Review and Comply, Importance: High."

The memo, which was reported in other media on Thursday, cautioned employees against speaking about the relationship between climate change and the possible extinction of polar bears without getting official approval in advance. Those discussions became official business in late December when Kempthorne, faced with lawsuits by environmentalists, proposed listing polar bears as a species threatened with extinction.

The memo stated: "Please be advised that all foreign travel requests (SF 1175 requests) and any future travel requests involving or potentially involving climate change, sea ice, and/or polar bears will also require a memorandum from the Regional Director to the Director indicating who'll be the official spokesman on the trip and the one responding to questions on these issues, particularly polar bears, including a statement of assurance that these individuals understand the Administration's position on these issues."

In an interview, the Fish and Wildlife Service's director, H. Dale Hall, said the agency is not trying to censor scientists but cannot allow them to discuss subjects not on the agenda of official foreign meetings.

"The agenda is actually negotiated between these countries that are going to attend," Hall said. ". . . you have to be extremely careful."

But Deborah Williams, an Interior official in the Clinton administration who heads the advocacy group Alaska Conservation Solutions, said the directive amounts to stifling government scientists' freedom of expression.

"These memos are an outrage, and do a great disservice to federal employees and to advancing discussion and knowledge on these critical issues," said Williams, who provided the memos to news organizations this week.

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