As It Happens

Former NOAA head calls Hurricane Dorian statement 'mealy mouthed' and 'disingenuous'

Kathy Sullivan, former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the federal agency has caved to political pressure to "make the president happy."

Kathy Sullivan says the federal scientific agency caved to political pressure to 'make the president happy'

Kathryn Sullivan is the former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Sue Ogrocki/The Associated Press)
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The former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the federal agency has caved to political pressure to "make the president happy" rather than standing up for its scientists. 

NOAA has come under fire for issuing a statement last week admonishing its National Weather Service forecasters in Birmingham, Ala., for publishing a tweet that contradicted U.S. President Donald Trump's claims about Hurricane Dorian threatening Alabama.

The New York Times reported that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to pressure NOAA to publicly disavow the Birmingham tweet — something Trump denies. NOAA is part of the U.S. Commerce Department.

The Democratic-controlled House committee on science, space and technology is investigating Ross's actions. 

Kathy Sullivan, a former NASA astronaut who headed up NOAA between 2014 and 2017, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the controversy. Here is part of their conversation.

What did you think when you saw those two statements [from Trump and the National Weather Service in Birmingham]?

The forecast office, by my understanding, did not know what the president had tweeted. All they knew was that suddenly their switchboards lit up with worried citizens in Alabama calling in asking questions.

A forecast that says you're in danger when you're not can be as dangerous as the reverse because it does not take many incidents of that sort to condition a population to just not bother and not respond to the warnings that come out.

So it was not only instinctual, but so scientifically sound and according to policy for that weather forecast office in Birmingham to very rapidly quash what was clearly an utterly incorrect statement about the weather.

Only later did they realize the source of it.

These contradictory tweets by U.S. President Donald Trump and the National Weather Service in Birmingham both came out on Sept. 1 (Twitter)

By Friday, NOAA issued a statement that the Birmingham National Weather Service's Sunday-morning tweet spoke in "absolute terms" and they were "inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time."  ... What did you make of that?

That someone had been put under tremendous political pressure, one of the higher-ups at NOAA. That they had caved to that pressure rather than defending the scientific integrity of the agency's product and workforce.

I found it disingenuous, rather mealy mouthed. 

So why do you think that NOAA issued that statement?

Again, I presume they were put under tremendous political pressure. 

The president wants people in what he considers to be his personal agencies to defend him, not contradict him. And someone was pressured to make NOAA fix it.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds an outdated and seemingly altered forecast map as he defends his statements about Hurricane Dorian threatening Alabama. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

The New York Times is reporting now that the Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross threatened to fire those political appointees at NOAA, if they didn't fix this. And today the paper's reporting the White House told Mr. Ross to get NOAA to disavow its own forecasters. What do you make of that?

I think the signs are clear that significant political pressure was brought to bear from on high, on probably Neil Jacobs, [acting administrator of] NOAA.

And the track record, the statement that was issued, makes clear that Mr. Jacobs decided to cave in and give in to his obligation to try to make the president happy, rather than stand up to his constitutional obligation to support the scientific integrity of the agency.

Neil Jacobs gave a speech Tuesday morning in which he said that the point was only to clarify technical aspects when they issued the clarification, that he said there is no pressure to change the way you communicate forecast risk in the future. He's saying this to the employees of NOAA. And so he seems to be trying to find a way to patch things over. What do you make of that? 

I found the statements that were reported very unconvincing. ... You're either standing on principle and really defending that principle, or you're not. And in my view, the statement of last week did not defend that principle. It was a caving-in.

He also said in the speech, "This is hard for me. This is hard for my friends [and] my family. ... I'm the same Neil I was last Thursday." Do you feel sorry for him?

I've had high-level jobs — his job and a job higher than that. I understand what it's like to be under pressure of various sorts when issues get tough and complex. So I have a certain degree of sympathy.

But, you know, he chose this course of action, and the courses of action and choices we make have consequences.

So I can imagine it would be hard having, again, failed to stand up for your people, to then show up a few days later and try to stand in front of them and claim again to be their leader. The trust, the significant bond of trust, was badly damaged.

Trust is like fine glass. It shatters in an instant with one blow, and it is not rapidly repaired. Times were tough, things were difficult, the high stakes were high, and you were not there for me. And then you show up on Tuesday and say, "I still love you and I'm the guy I was before"? Pretty hollow.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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