In a long anticipated report, the Commerce Department inspector general faulted the department for its role in pressuring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to issue an unsigned statement backing President Trump’s claims that Hurricane Dorian would severely impact Alabama, against the guidance of its own forecasters.
The report says the Commerce Department ran a “flawed process” that went against the interests of NOAA and the National Weather Service, which it oversees.
The report, from Inspector General Peggy Gustafson, an appointee of President Barack Obama, took 10 months to complete, and late Monday night only a summary of it was posted online. That document includes redactions that it says the Commerce Department requested, “while the Department and its stakeholders complete a pending privilege review.”
The full report, which may also contain redactions, was not yet posted on the inspector general’s website as of Wednesday morning, despite the memo’s statement that it would be posted on June 29. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that oversees NOAA, called for the full report’s release in a statement on Wednesday.
“It appears that the Department of Commerce received an Inspector General report of an investigation into Hurricane Dorian information mismanagement on June 26th, but has blocked its release. I expect that full, un-redacted report to be made public immediately in the interest of full transparency,” Cantwell said.
A Commerce Department spokesperson did not say when the full report will be released.
“The decision to not release the report was made by the Inspector General, who can determine when and how the report is released,” the spokesperson said. “The Department of Commerce’s official response will be released with the full report.”
The summary of the report does not say what, if any role the White House played in the Commerce Department’s decision to have NOAA issue the Sept. 6, 2019, statement.
The NOAA statement in question backed up repeated, inaccurate claims by Trump regarding the hurricane’s threat to Alabama and contradicted public statements and weather forecasts issued by NOAA’s National Weather Service forecast office in Birmingham, Ala. The inspector general’s examination of “the circumstances surrounding the statement” was launched on Sept. 7, 2019, amid fierce public blowback against NOAA.
The memo summarizing the inspector general’s report concluded that the Commerce Department “led a flawed process that discounted NOAA participation.” The unsigned statement released by NOAA, which backed the president, involved only acting administrator Neil Jacobs and his communications director Julie Kay Roberts, both political appointees.
Commerce Department officials and NOAA leaders did not engage scientists within the National Weather Service when drafting the statement, which was found to be a violation of NOAA’s scientific integrity policy, according to a separate investigation released earlier this month.
The inspector general’s report also found that the unsigned statement “did not further NOAA’s or NWS’s interests.” The statement’s release provoked an uproar among NOAA constituents, who said it harmed the agency’s credibility. In addition, scientists and high-level officials within NOAA expressed outrage, as shown in records released in several Freedom of Information Act requests from The Washington Post and other media outlets. Many feared the statement would damage public trust in NWS forecasts.
The inspector general’s report further faulted the Commerce Department for failing to consider “the public safety intent” of a tweet from the NWS Birmingham office, which appeared to contradict the president when it stated that Dorian would not impact Alabama.
However, the Birmingham office made clear afterward that it was not responding to the president but trying to calm public fears after receiving an influx of phone calls and other messages from concerned residents in the region. It was only after the Birmingham office issued its tweet that employees there saw the president’s message.
Officials in the Commerce Department knew this but ordered the NOAA statement rebuking the Birmingham office anyway.
The report also found that a NOAA employee deleted text messages relevant to the investigation, which may have violated federal records guidance. The inspector general’s memo did not name the employee; however, the separate NOAA scientific integrity investigation said it was Roberts, who now works at another Commerce Department agency.
The stakes involved in the NOAA investigations are high, since they concern how free the agency is from political interference as the heart of what is expected to be an unusually active hurricane season approaches. This hurricane season will bring with it unprecedented challenges if any storm makes landfall, given the worsening coronavirus pandemic that is raging in several hurricane-prone states, including Florida and Texas.
If people view forecasts from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center as politically motivated, for example, they may be less likely to heed evacuation orders when a storm strikes.
The report is one of three investigations into the NOAA statement, including the scientific integrity review that NOAA concluded on June 15. However, the inspector general’s inquiry is the only one that has involved high-level participation on the part of the Commerce Department, as the agency had declined interview requests for the NOAA scientific integrity investigation and has not provided documents and interviews for an ongoing probe by the House Science Committee.
As The Washington Post has reported, the White House wanted NOAA to amend the record on the Hurricane Dorian forecast, and orders to NOAA were handed down through top aides to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, because NOAA is part of the department.
The NOAA scientific integrity investigation faulted Jacobs and Roberts, the former NOAA deputy chief of staff and communications director, for violating codes of the agency’s scientific integrity policy through their involvement in the Sept. 6 statement. NOAA’s scientific integrity policy prohibits political interference with the conduct and communication of the agency’s scientific findings.
Trump has nominated Jacobs to a Senate-confirmed position to lead the government’s primary oceans and atmospheric science agency, and his nomination has cleared the Senate Commerce Committee. He has also nominated acting Commerce Department general counsel Michael Walsh to that position, but Walsh has been referred to as a key player in the NOAA statement, according to FOIA releases and other materials.
These new findings could cloud the prospects of both Jacobs and Walsh on the Senate floor.
This is a developing story and will be updated.