Congresswoman Defends NOAA Scientists From Lamar Smith ‘Witch Hunt’

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson sends Lamar Smith, chair of the House science committee, a blistering critique of his 'ideological crusade.'

House science committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) is seen here at a committee event at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

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This story was updated on Nov. 24 at 11:45 a.m. with comments from Rep. Lamar Smith and NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson delivered a blistering critique of a Republican campaign to discredit the work of federal climate scientists, branding the effort “hyper-aggressive oversight,” a “fishing expedition” and an “ideological crusade.”

The months-long probe of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers is being led by Texas Republican Lamar Smith, chair of the House science committee. Johnson is the committee’s ranking democrat.

“In six separate, and increasingly aggressive, letters,” Johnson wrote in a Nov. 19 letter to Smith, “the only thing you accused NOAA of doing is engaging in climate science—i.e., doing their jobs.” The letter charges Smith of “political posturing intended to influence public opinion” ahead of the Paris climate talks.

Smith responded to Johnson on Monday, calling her “characterization of the Committee’s efforts to obtain data from a government agency under its jurisdiction… inaccurate and misleading.”

The congressman is targeting a June 4 study by federal researchers that refutes the so-called “hiatus” in global warming. The hiatus theory—favored by climate denialists—argues warming has paused or slowed since 1998. The study was led by Tom Karl, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, and published in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

Since July, Smith has sent NOAA letters and subpoenas asking the agency to provide “all documents and communications” related to the study. NOAA has refused to comply with Smith’s requests for emails, citing the importance of confidentiality among scientists.

“The whole thing is really disconcerting…somebody doesn’t like the result you publish and all of a sudden you have this huge hammer of a congressional subpoena hanging over your head. It has a chilling effect on scientists,” said Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In her letter, Johnson, also from Texas, criticized Smith for not explaining why he was investigating NOAA, as well as for making “sweeping indictments” to media that federal scientists manipulated data to advance President Obama’s climate change agenda.

“In one fell swoop, you have accused a host of different individuals of wrongdoing,” Johnson wrote. “You have accused NOAA’s top research scientists of scientific misconduct. By extension, you have also accused the peer-reviewers at one of our nation’s most prestigious academic journals, Science, of participating in this misconduct (or at least being too incompetent to notice what was going on). If that weren’t enough, you are intimating a grand conspiracy between NOAA and the White House to doctor climate science to advance administration policy. Presumably this accusation extends to [NOAA] Administrator [Kathryn] Sullivan herself.

“And all of these indictments are conjured out of thin air, without you presenting any factual basis for these sweeping accusations—exposing this so-called ‘investigation’ for what it truly is: a witch hunt designed to smear the reputations of eminent scientists for partisan gain.”

Johnson first contacted Smith with her concerns about the investigation in October. When Smith didn’t respond, she decided she needed to write him again, said Kristin Kopshever, a House science committee spokeswoman for Johnson.

“Over the past couple of years, the committee has had a lot of investigations,” said Kopshever. It has investigated the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation, she said. In September, Smith launched an investigation of Jagadish Shukla, a climate scientist at George Mason University in Virginia who called for a federal probe into whether fossil fuel companies knowingly misled the public on climate change.

What made her word these recent letters [to Smith] so strongly, Kopshever said, “is that he doesn’t have any fact-based allegations against NOAA for wrongdoing or misuse of power or funds that would typically prompt an investigation.”

Smith also wrote two letters to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker urging her to pressure NOAA to cooperate with the House committee probe. The most recent one was sent on Nov. 18. In it, Smith claimed to have whistleblower communications that show “wrongdoing.” 

“Information provided to the Committee by whistleblowers appears to show that the Karl study was rushed to publication despite the concerns and objections of a number of NOAA scientists,” Smith wrote. Pritzker was out of the country last week and asked Sullivan of NOAA to respond on her behalf. “Let me assure you that I am not engaged in or associated with any ‘politically correct agenda,'” Sullivan wrote in the Nov. 20 letter. “I have not and will not allow anyone to manipulate the science or coerce the scientists who work for me.”

Johnson requested that the whistleblower information be shared with Democratic members of the science committee. She called Smith’s criticism that the study was “rushed” a “mild accusation”—one not serious enough to warrant a congressional investigation.

“The Constitution doesn’t provide you with a blank check to harass research scientists with whose results you disagree,” she wrote.

In his response letter Monday, Smith said that asking for the source’s information “in a public setting is not only harmful to the Committee’s current investigations, but may have a chilling effect on the willingness of federal employees to report waste, fraud, and abuse to the Committee in the future.” 

Read the full letter: