20 December 2012

Why is NOAA Acting Like it has Something to Hide?

UPDATE 12/21: Following an inquiry to the NWS and NOAA, Christopher Vaccarro of NOAA External Relations confirms to me by email that NOAA has not asked its Sandy Assessment Team members to sign a  nondisclosure agreement as alleged by Rep. Paul Broun in his letter sent earlier this week where he wrote: "the new charter requires that participants sign non-disclosure agreements." NOAA has some questions to answer, to be sure, but to remain a credible overseer the House Science Committee needs to have its own facts straight. I've struck out the resulting incorrect text below. 

NOAA -- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and parent agency to the cooperative institute where I am a Fellow here at the University of Colorado -- is acting like an agency with something to hide.

Last week I described the problematic nature of the so-called 'hurricane deductible" and how it placed NOAA, and its National Hurricane Center in particular, in a very difficult situation. Specifically, the NHC's preliminary (and not yet final) characterization of the meteorological characteristics of Sandy at landfall implicated tens of billions of dollars in winners and losers among those who suffered property damage from the storm. Predictably, the NHC's characterization of Sandy has attracted the interests of politicians who have pressured NOAA to make its decisions about the storm's status at landfall in a politically preferred manner.

When NOAA empaneled a post-Sandy assessment team (a routine action) and then immediately terminated it (far from routine), it raised eyebrows. NOAA then reconstituted an assessment team comprised only of government officials who, we have now learned, have been required to sign non-disclosure agreements and to work outside of the provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). Both steps create the appearance of wanting to keep something secret. They certainly do not suggest transparency. Having served as an outside member on a politcally sensitive post-disaster NOAA assessment (Red River Floods, 1997), I do know how such investigations work.

After NOAA starting acting strangely on its Sandy investigation, Representative Paul Broun (R-GA), chairman of the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology sent Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator, a letter with some pointed questions (PDF).  NOAA responded to this letter last week with a vacuous and non-responsive letter (PDF), a step almost guaranteed to focus even more attention on the agency.

Rep. Broun apparently did not like the fact that NOAA completely ignored his oversight, because yesterday he sent a second, strongly worded letter (PDF). In it Rep. Broun asks NOAA the same questions, requiring a point-by-point response, and he also challenges NOAA's commitment to transparency and openness.

Broun's new letter makes note of some new details that should raise the interest of anyone interested in that messy space where science and politics meet up (including bloggers and the media who have thus far completely ignored this issue, but I digress):
  • NOAA dramatically scaled back the scope of its post-Sandy assessment, now NHC is not even mentioned in the new assessment charter, yet was the focus of the original charter;
  • The new assessment does not need approval by NOAA offices, rather sign-off on the new assessment is closely held by the NOAA administration;
  • NOAA cites FACA as a reason for limiting participation in the assessment -- contrary to FACA's intended purpose, and contrary to recent recommendations for such assessments by the National Research Council;
  • NOAA cites a need for timeliness as an excuse not to include outsiders, however their internal assessment is not due to start until after the holidays, some 10 weeks after Sandy.
  • Remarkably, participants in the new assessment are required to sign non-disclosure agreements (this fact alone is remarkable, what could NOAA conceivably want to remain non-disclosed?).
Rep. Broun concludes his letter:
I remain concerned that the NWS Sandy service Assessment lacks sufficient independence as non-governmental participation has been scaled back, confidentiality clauses have been added, and management influence has grown. NOAA has also narrowed the assessment to the point that it may not substantively inform future agency actions.
Rep. Broun's letter makes no mention of the "hurricane deductible" but it would be surprising if it was not in some way related to NOAA's strange behavior.  Acting like you have something to hide -- whether you do or not -- is a sure way to get the attention  of congressional overseers. NOAA's response is requested by 4 January 2012. Stay tuned.