By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Members of Vice President Cheney's staff censored congressional testimony by a top federal official about health threats posed by global warming, a former Environmental Protection Agency official said yesterday.
In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), former EPA deputy associate administrator Jason K. Burnett said an official from Cheney's office ordered last October that six pages be edited out of the testimony of Julie L. Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gerberding had planned to say that the "CDC considers climate change a serious public health concern."
Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the administration sought the changes for fear that Gerberding's testimony could trigger new controls under the Clean Air Act that would regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. The White House has opposed mandatory limits and has insisted that voluntary measures and increased research are the best ways to address the issue.
"The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Office of the Vice President (OVP) were seeking deletions to the CDC testimony," Burnett, 31, a Stanford-trained economist and a Democrat, wrote in response to an inquiry from Boxer's committee. "CEQ requested that I work with CDC to remove from the testimony any discussion of the human health consequences of climate change."
Several media outlets, including The Washington Post, reported at the time of Gerberding's testimony that the administration had revised her proposed remarks. White House officials justified the changes by citing doubts about the scientific basis of her testimony.
Burnett -- a grandson of high-tech entrepreneur David Packard and a member of the Packard Foundation's board of trustees -- has given more than $129,000 to Democratic campaigns in recent years, including $3,600 to presidential candidate Barack Obama (Ill.). He did not identify who in the vice president's office had called him.
"I'm not interested in pointing fingers at any individual," he said at a news conference with Boxer, adding that he is focused on how the government will address climate change in response to a Supreme Court decision last year requiring the EPA to deal with rising carbon dioxide emissions. "I'm interested in helping inform the next administration to help make those decisions, while recognizing Congress could act to pass a better law."
Boxer demanded that, in light of Burnett's allegations, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson turn over "every document related to the agency's finding that global warming poses a danger to the public" -- a determination the EPA reached late last year in a document that has never been made public. On that basis, the senator said, the agency must issue regulations to limit the emissions.
The White House declined to open the EPA e-mail containing that finding, which Burnett sent on Dec. 5, leaving the recommendation in limbo. Burnett was responsible for climate change issues at EPA.
"I'm calling on Mr. Johnson to act now, and if he doesn't have the courage or the strength or determination to act, he should resign," Boxer said.
EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said Johnson will not provide the documents, but added that Boxer and others will be able to read about the agency's findings in detail when it releases its proposed regulation of greenhouse gases, expected within days.
"The administrator is glad to see Senator Boxer agrees that we need a robust and complete advance notice of proposed rulemaking that will come out as soon as Friday," Shradar said, adding that "a lot of those documents" Boxer is seeking will be in the proposal. "I don't know if she's just now working on her summer reading list or what."
Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride declined to discuss Burnett's allegations, saying, "We don't comment on internal deliberations." But White House spokesman Tony Fratto noted that officials in past administrations have vetted congressional testimony from agency officials.
"There's absolutely nothing unusual here in terms of the inter-agency review process, whether it's testimony, rules or anything else," Fratto said in an interview. "The process exists so that other offices and departments have the opportunity to comment and offer their views. There's nothing unusual about that, there's nothing nefarious about that, and there's nothing different here from previous administrations."
CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said that any changes to Gerberding's planned testimony were made "during the normal editing process" and that she "spoke openly and fully without constraint" while testifying before the Senate.
Frank O'Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said the revelations confirmed that the vice president has been steering environmental policy during President Bush's tenure.
"For years, we've suspected that Cheney was the puppeteer for administration policy on global warming," O'Donnell said. "This kiss-and-tell account appears to confirm the worst."
Boxer was particularly harsh in assessing earlier comments made by White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, who in October said that some of Gerberding's original draft "did not comport with" the 2007 report of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
"This was a lie," Boxer said, reading Perino's quote. "She said it was in contradiction with the IPCC report. It wasn't."
The IPCC report raised many of the same points that Gerberding did in her original testimony, but Bush's science adviser, John H. Marburger III, issued a statement in October saying that "there was an overall lack of precision" in Gerberding's draft concerning "the specific nature of some climate change impacts on human health."
Yesterday, Fratto said White House officials "stand 100 percent behind what Dana said."