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Bush v. Science

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, February 6, 2006; 1:10 PM

President Bush is talking a lot about science these days. He just doesn't have much interest in listening to scientists.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Finally there may be an answer to the question of why President Bush spends so much time clearing brush at his Texas ranch.

"Maybe he's collecting it to fuel his next truck. . . .

"The president's fascination with the gee-whiz breakthroughs of modern science may not be new, but it has certainly been more evident in the days since he made unleashing the power of research and innovation a central element of his State of the Union address."

But Bush's relationship to science can be illustrated by the fact that he is speaking rapturously of producing ethanol from (of all things) switch grass -- but not saying a word about what many scientists say may be the greatest disaster facing humankind: global climate change.

A Time magazine cover story today shines a spotlight on Bush's relationship of convenience with science. Mark Thompson and Karen Tumulty write that "growing numbers of researchers, both in and out of government, say their findings -- on pollution, climate change, reproductive health, stem-cell research and other areas in which science often finds itself at odds with religious, ideological or corporate interests -- are being discounted, distorted or quashed by Bush Administration appointees.

"White House officials don't see that pattern of interference. 'This Administration has been very supportive of science,' Bush's science adviser and respected physicist John Marburger told Time. 'The President wants us to do it right, and doesn't want us to do things that contradict the laws of nature.' But in the past two years, the Union of Concerned Scientists has collected the signatures of more than 8,000 scientists -- including 49 Nobel laureates, 63 National Medal of Science recipients and 171 members of the National Academies -- who accuse the Administration of an unprecedented level of political intrusion into their world. 'There have always been isolated incidents where people have played politics with science,' says Francesca Grifo, director of the group's Scientific Integrity Program. 'What's new is its pervasive and systemic nature. We get calls every week from federal scientists reporting stuff to us.'

"Rarely, however, are they willing to put their jobs and their research grants at risk by going public with their complaints. That's why it was so remarkable when one of the government's leading experts on climate change, 29-year NASA veteran James Hansen, who is director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, charged on the front page of the New York Times that he has been muzzled by the agency. He accused the agency of demanding to review his lectures, papers and postings to the NASA website, as well as screen his media interviews."

Andrew C. Revken followed up on that story in the New York Times on Saturday, writing: "A week after NASA's top climate scientist complained that the space agency's public-affairs office was trying to silence his statements on global warming, the agency's administrator, Michael D. Griffin, issued a sharply worded statement yesterday calling for 'scientific openness' throughout the agency.

" 'It is not the job of public-affairs officers,' Dr. Griffin wrote in an e-mail message to the agency's 19,000 employees, 'to alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by NASA's technical staff.' "

Revken called attention to yet another example of political interference by George Deutsch, a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters whose resume says he was an intern in the "war room" of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.

Deutsch "told a Web designer working for the agency to add the word 'theory' after every mention of the Big Bang, according to an e-mail message from Mr. Deutsch that another NASA employee forwarded to The Times. . . .

"The Big Bang is 'not proven fact; it is opinion,' Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, 'It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator.' "

Daniel Smith wrote in the New York Times Magazine in September about the growing sense in the scientific community that science is being misused by the White House.

Tom Toles cartoonified on Bush's approach to science last Thursday.

Ron Hutcheson wrote for Knight Ridder Newspapers last August when "President Bush waded into the debate over evolution and 'intelligent design' Monday, saying schools should teach both theories on the creation and complexity of life."

Sebastian Mallaby wrote in a Washington Post opinion column last October: "The flip side of Bush cronyism is hostility toward experts -- toward people who care about what's what rather than who's who."

The Rise of Switch Grass

Rick Montgomery writes in the Kansas City Star: "Heretofore, the inglorious history of switch grass has mostly been about plowing it away or using it as a whip. . . .

"Now, no less of an authority than the U.S. president is pointing to switch grass as a potential miracle crop in the battle to free America from its addiction to foreign oil.

"Researchers already know how to convert cellulose from switch grass -- or wood chips, corn stalks, wheat straw, old newspapers -- into sugars used in making ethanol. The challenge is doing it cheaply. And until cellulose ethanol becomes cheap enough to compete with corn-based ethanol, experts say, the market value of switch grass will remain this side of worthless."

Garry Mitchell writes for the Associated Press: "In his call for greater use of alternative fuels, President Bush mentioned switchgrass as a possible source in the coming decades, but the idea may need a jump-start. A switchgrass researcher at Auburn University said federal policy-makers have delayed its commercial use by waiting for private industry to fund it.

" 'Industry won't fund it, because there's too much risk involved,' said David Bransby, a professor and switchgrass researcher at Auburn's College of Agriculture."

Melissa Block interviewed Bransby on NPR and found out that politics played a role in Bush's mention of switch grass.

"BLOCK: Do you have any idea how switch grass made it into the State of the Union? What lobby or interest group was putting it in there?

"Dr. BRANSBY: Well, our Senator Sessions from Alabama.

Block later explained: "Jeff Sessions's press secretary told us the Alabama Senator had indeed sung the praises of switch grass last Friday in a meeting with Al Hubbard, an economic advisor to the president."

Here's more information , including pictures, about switch grass.

Jonathan Guthrie writes in the Financial Times: "Switchgrass is the botanical marvel Mr Bush has dragged from obscurity to propose as a source of bioethanol powering a US free from extortion by oil sheikhs and threats from mullahs. Has the Kyoto protocol refusenik and doubter of global warming suddenly gone a funny shade of green? Perhaps, but in a distinctively Republican way.

"If switchgrass was a person not a plant, it would drive a truck with an National Rifle Association bumper sticker and whitetail buck strapped across the hood. Panicum virgatum is a tall-growing, clumping grass, whose flower-heads once undulated like an inland sea across vast expanses of prairie. It grows where honest, God-fearing folks live, far from coastal Democratic enclaves."

Energy Policy Watch

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Let's say the energy bills in your house are too high. One response might be to start saving for a new, more efficient house you could afford in 10 or 20 years.

"Or you could replace the windows and improve the insulation today.

"President Bush, in the energy plan he announced in his State of the Union speech last week, chose the first strategy. Bush promised more federal energy research, primarily into technologies that might reduce America's fossil fuel dependence years from now. But he rejected the common-sense measures that could bring immediate improvements and maximize the long-term benefits of the new research."

Domestic Spying Watch

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales opened up his day of Senate testimony on domestic spying with a broadside against the very idea of talking about it.

From his prepared statement : "Our enemy is listening. And I cannot help but wonder if they aren't shaking their heads in amazement at the thought that anyone would imperil such a sensitive program by leaking its existence in the first place -- and smiling at the prospect that we might now disclose even more or perhaps even unilaterally disarm ourselves of a key tool in the war on terror."

Barton Gellman, Dafna Linzer and Carol D. Leonnig wrote in Sunday's Washington Post: "Intelligence officers who eavesdropped on thousands of Americans in overseas calls under authority from President Bush have dismissed nearly all of them as potential suspects after hearing nothing pertinent to a terrorist threat, according to accounts from current and former government officials and private-sector sources with knowledge of the technologies in use. . . .

"The scale of warrantless surveillance, and the high proportion of bystanders swept in, sheds new light on Bush's circumvention of the courts. National security lawyers, in and out of government, said the washout rate raised fresh doubts about the program's lawfulness under the Fourth Amendment, because a search cannot be judged 'reasonable' if it is based on evidence that experience shows to be unreliable. Other officials said the disclosures might shift the terms of public debate, altering perceptions about the balance between privacy lost and security gained."

David Johnston and Michael Janofsky write in the New York Times: "Some legal experts see Mr. Gonzales as little more than a surrogate for President Bush, whom he has served in a variety of capacities since 1997, when Mr. Bush was governor of Texas.

" 'Nothing in Al Gonzales's public statements, legislative proposals or anything else suggests that this is an individual who operates outside of the political gyroscope of President Bush,' said Bruce Fein, an associate deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration."

David G. Savage writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Ever since President Truman sent U.S. troops to fight in Korea in 1950, presidents have claimed broad wartime power to act without first seeking the approval of Congress. But they did so with the silence or implicit consent of lawmakers.

"Senators will convene today to confront the fact that in combating terrorism, President Bush has gone a step further."

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The hearing's tenor rests on a central question: Do the Republicans who control Capitol Hill have greater loyalty to Congress as an institution or to the president who heads their political party?"

Any Limits at All?

Mark Hosenball writes in Newsweek: "In the latest twist in the debate over presidential powers, a Justice Department official suggested that in certain circumstances, the president might have the power to order the killing of terrorist suspects inside the United States."

Massimo Calabresi writes in Time: "As Capitol Hill prepares to battle the White House over George W. Bush's expanding war powers, moderate Senators on both sides of the aisle are quietly considering a range of options that would attempt at the very least to delineate the President's authority, if not roll it back. Bush's claims of wartime license are so great -- the White House and Justice Department have argued that the Commander in Chief's pursuit of national security cannot be constrained by any laws passed by Congress, even when he is acting against U.S. citizens -- that some Senators are considering a constitutional amendment to limit his powers."

History Lessons

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times about the "striking similarity to a drama that unfolded three decades ago in the capital: The 1975 Church hearings.

The National Security Archive reports: "Despite objections from then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and then-CIA director George H. W. Bush, President Gerald Ford came down on the side of a proposed federal law to govern wiretapping in 1976 instead of relying on the 'inherent' authority of the President because the 'pros' outweighed the 'cons,' according to internal White House documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and posted on the Web today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University."

Margaret Ebrahim writes for the Associated Press that the documents "include one startling similarity to Washington's current atmosphere over disclosures of classified information by the media.

"Notes from a 1975 meeting between then-White House chief of staff Dick Cheney, Attorney General Edward Levi and others cite the 'problem' of a New York Times article by Seymour Hersh about U.S. submarines spying inside Soviet waters. Participants considered a formal FBI investigation of Hersh and the Times and searching Hersh's apartment 'to go after (his) papers,' the document said."

Libby Watch

David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff told prosecutors that Mr. Cheney had informed him 'in an off sort of curiosity sort of fashion' in mid-June 2003 about the identity of the C.I.A. officer at the heart of the leak case, according to a formerly secret legal opinion, parts of which were made public on Friday.

"The newly released pages were part of a legal opinion written in February 2005 by Judge David S. Tatel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. . . .

"Not all of the previously withheld material was released. Several pages, which apparently contained information about [special prosecutor Patrick J.] Fitzgerald's investigation of Karl Rove, the senior White House adviser, remained under seal."

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "Fitzgerald also contended that Libby lied to the grand jury when he said he never mentioned Plame or her CIA job to [then-White House press secretary Ari] Fleischer when they had lunch on July 7. Fleischer recalled before the grand jury that Libby did mention Plame and said she worked in the 'counterproliferation area of the CIA.' Fleischer said Libby stressed that 'the vice president did not send Ambassador Wilson to Niger . . . the CIA sent Ambassador Wilson to Niger . . . he was sent by his wife.'"

Michael Isikoff writes in Newsweek: "Lawyers for Libby, and White House allies, have repeatedly questioned whether Plame, the wife of White House critic Joe Wilson, really had covert status when she was outed to the media in July 2003. But special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald found that Plame had indeed done 'covert work overseas' on counterproliferation matters in the past five years, and the CIA 'was making specific efforts to conceal' her identity, according to newly released portions of a judge's opinion."

Jane Hamsher of the firedoglake blog is tracking down the documents in the case. Here's the newly reissued February 2005 ruling that now includes some previously redacted pages (see pp 72 to 81 of the document).

Cheney's Latest Interview

I wrote in Friday's column about how Cheney these days is only agreeing to interviews from right-wing talk-show hosts, where he predictably is getting some outrageous softballs.

Just as I was filing, along came a new transcript -- from an interview with Laura Ingraham .

Sample question: "Q What are you doing, the elliptical trainer? What's your exercise?"

But wait. Ingraham actually challenged Cheney on one of the White House straw men! Bravo.

"Q I noticed that the President, Vice President Cheney, in the State of the Union speech used the word isolationist several times, and then in his speeches across the country after the State of the Union, he also used the isolationist word: 'We cannot be isolationist . . . there used to be isolationism in the United States,' and so forth. About whom is he speaking when he refers to isolationists today?"

Cheney was flummoxed. And, not surprisingly, unable to name a single person.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think -- I don't know that I want to put my finger on any one particular individual. Let me just describe a category. I would argue that people who want to deal with the terrorist threat, if you will, the way we dealt with it prior to 9/11 fall into that category. That is folks who feel that we can sort of retreat behind our oceans and everything will be okay, folks who believe that our involvement from a military perspective in the Middle East is somehow an 'optional war, optional conflict.' That's not true after 9/11."

Too bad Ingraham didn't follow up on that one.

Credibility Watch

I've already gotten hundreds of responses to my request in Friday's column for questions you readers would like reporters to ask Bush. Please keep in mind that what I'm looking for are not generic questions, but well-documented and (ideally) polite queries that would specifically go towards the issue of his credibility.

E-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com . I apologize in advance for not being able to respond to each e-mail personally. I'll publish many of them later this week.

Gerson Watch

In the New Yorker, Jeffrey Goldberg profiles Michael Gerson, the former speechwriter now senior policy adviser to Bush.

"Unlike most speechwriters, who tend to be segregated from policymaking, Gerson has always been an influential figure in the White House, in part because he shares Bush's belief in the power of faith -- both men are evangelical Christians -- and because he possesses a preternatural ability, his friends say, to anticipate Bush's thinking. There is a 'mind meld' between the two men, Bush's counsellor Dan Bartlett told me, adding, 'When you bring a West Texas approach to the heavy debates of the world, there has to be a translator, and Mike is the translator.' "

Speaking to a group of ex-White House speechwriters, Gerson was reportedly asked to tell the gathering something it didn't know about Bush.

"Gerson, in a quavering voice, responded with a story that left some of his audience nonplussed. He described a call that he got moments after Bush finished addressing a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001. Bush thanked Gerson for his work on the speech, to which Gerson replied, 'Mr. President, this is why God wants you here.' Gerson then related Bush's response, as evidence of his thoughtfulness. 'The President said, 'No, this is why God wants us here.' '

"An uncomfortable silence filled the room, and then one of Bill Clinton's speechwriters said, in a stage whisper, 'God must really hate Al Gore.' "

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