Some grumble of politicization at NASA

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When it comes to playing politics with America's space program, there are growing signs the Bush administration is boldly going where no White House has gone before.

The issue of political ideology and partisanship at NASA is expected to come to a head Thursday when agency Administrator Michael Griffin testifies before the House Science Committee on the 2007 budget.

Investigators already are looking into whether a political appointee serving as the NASA inspector general killed potentially embarrassing investigations and punished whistle-blowers. And Jan. 29, another political appointee in the agency's Washington public-affairs office was accused of restricting media access to a NASA global-warming researcher and denying interviews to "liberal" news organizations.

Historically, NASA has seldom been ground zero for battles fought along party lines. However, critics contend the incidents are further evidence of how NASA and other federal agencies have been politicized to an unprecedented degree.

"They [the Bush administration] have taken it to a new level," said Howard McCurdy, a public-affairs professor at American University and an expert on NASA's organization. "But they are continuing a trend."

NASA officials in Washington contend the incidents are unrelated and that it would be a mistake to interpret them as signs of a larger pattern.

"I would strongly disagree with the characterization that the agency has become politicized," said Dean Acosta, the deputy assistant administrator for public affairs at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "That's not the way we operate."

On the stump

Those who see a more political NASA under George W. Bush trace the first outward signs to 2002.

Former Administrator Sean O'Keefe made an unprecedented decision that fall to campaign on behalf of Republicans. In the final days before the election, he visited Huntsville, Ala., home of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, to endorse U.S. Rep. Bob Riley, R-Ala., for governor. A similar visit to Cocoa Beach to stump for U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, was canceled only after O'Keefe's flight was delayed.

The move was widely criticized.

"O'Keefe decided on his own time he wanted to support people who were big supporters of the space program," explained Feeney, whose district includes Kennedy Space Center. "As long as it's not done on government time or on the government's dime, I think individual agency heads, with the approval of the president, can make that decision on their own."

Griffin, O'Keefe's successor, has taken a more traditional posture. A self-described conservative Republican, Griffin was unequivocal when asked recently whether he would campaign this fall:

"I certainly will not be doing that."

Three months after the 2002 elections, charges of political maneuvering cropped up again in the wake of the Columbia accident.

Members of Congress in both parties pushed for an independent presidential commission similar to the one that investigated the 1986 Challenger disaster. Instead, NASA chartered its own probe. Critics charged the decision was an attempt to control the investigation and minimize potential embarrassment.

Unlike President Reagan, who ceremonially accepted and endorsed the Rogers Commission's scathing report on Challenger, Bush did not publicly embrace the hard-hitting Columbia findings. The White House press office instead released an eight-sentence statement that omitted any reference to the report's recommendations.

Investigator investigated

More recently, the qualifications and influence of political appointees have come under fire.

Out of 1,900 civil servants at NASA Headquarters in Washington, 24 are political appointees. That's comparable to the 18 or so who were at the agency during the Clinton administration. Critics, however, say the numbers don't reflect the appointees' increasing control.

An example is the position of deputy administrator, once held by such aerospace legends as Hugh Dryden and George Low. Until last year, the No. 2 job was filled by Fred Gregory, a former astronaut who gradually was promoted upward during 24 years at NASA. He was succeeded in November by Shana Dale, a lawyer at the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy and a former Republican staffer on the House's space subcommittee.

While Dale hasn't made headlines, other appointees have.

An administration integrity committee is investigating NASA inspector general Robert Cobb for ignoring safety violations, including at least one in the space-shuttle program. His own investigators have complained that he shut down probes and dealt harshly with those who resisted.

Cobb was appointed to the job in 2002 after a one-year stint as an associate counsel to the president. In that role, he administered the White House ethics program and helped prepare presidential appointees for Senate confirmation. As NASA inspector general, questions arose about the closeness of his relationship with former administrator O'Keefe.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called for the investigation into Cobb's conduct after receiving complaints -- starting in mid-2005 -- from dozens of people, many of them Cobb's own employees.

"The allegations coming in were that the inspector general was quashing investigations, and that's the last thing that needs to happen in an agency where safety is primary," Nelson said. "When there are conversations going on between the administrator of NASA and the inspector general, who is supposed to conduct his job independent of any political influence, that was another reason why it needed to be investigated."

Scientific openness

Political appointee George Deutsch, 24, a former journalism major at Texas A&M University, joined the agency's office of public affairs after working on Bush's re-election campaign in 2004. He resigned last week after revelations that he hadn't graduated in 2003 as his resume stated.

Deutsch became the personification of political excess at NASA when The New York Times reported that he tried to limit reporters' access to James Hansen, a veteran agency scientist whose views on global warming contradicted the administration's. Deutsch also was accused by colleagues of denying an interview to National Public Radio because they were too "liberal" and telling the designer of a NASA Web site to insert the word "theory" after every mention of the big bang.

The revelations forced administrator Griffin to release a statement Feb. 3 reaffirming NASA's commitment to scientific openness and promising "clarification and improvements" to public-affairs operations. NASA managers characterized Deutsch's actions as isolated.

"Public affairs is here to make sure that we put out intelligible, grammatically correct information in a way that is interesting and promotes what we do," spokesman Acosta said. "We do not get involved in any sort of censorship or changing of scientific data."

Nelson, who is running for re-election, needs more convincing.

"You have to question whether or not the agency is starting to go off the rails because of political influence," Nelson said. "I think it's good that all of this has been exposed, and we need to get to the bottom of it. The last thing in the world that needs to be politicized is NASA."

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