Letter from Henry Waxman to Mike Griffin re: White House influence

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May 8 2007 7:31 PM

Letter from Henry Waxman to Mike Griffin re: White House influence

When the Democrats took back the House in 2006, Henry Waxman (D CA) took over as chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee (actually, when he took it over, the word "Oversight" was not in the committee's title, as his predecessor had removed it -- I mean, hey, after all, why should the government need oversight?).

Waxman has been very, very busy trying to find out just where the government - both Congress and the White House -- has stepped over the line of the law. Recently, it came to light that the White House has been giving presentations to government agencies and using these as platforms to promote the Republican party. That is a very bad no-no. So on April 27, Chairman Waxman sent out letters to many Agency heads, asking if there have been any shenanigans, and that includes a letter sent to NASA's Mike Griffin.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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I figured BABloggees might be interested in this. It's not an indictment of anyone at NASA, just a letter to see if the White House has been pushing a political agenda.

Dear Administrator Griffin:

I am writing to request information about political briefings given by White House officials to federal agency officials.

On March 28,2007, the Committee held a hearing during which Lurita Doan, the head of the General Services Administration, testified that White House officials in the Office of Political Affairs conducted a political briefing at GSA headquarters on January 26,2007. The briefing slides, which the Committee reviewed, identified the Republican Parfy's top electoral targets in the 2008 elections. After the presentation, Lurita Doan asked her staff to discuss how GSA resources could be used to help "our candidates" in the next election.

An article in today's Washington Post reports that White House officials now confirm that, in the past year alone, at least 20 similar briefings were given to officials of at least 15 federal agencies, including the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Commerce Department, among others.

To assist with the Committee's continuing investigation of this issue, I request that you provide information about any briefing mentioning elections or candidates provided to agency employees by officials in the White House between January 20,2001, and April 26,2007. Please provide the dates, times, attendees, and locations of these briefings, as well as any communications and documents relating to the briefings. Please provide these materials to the Committee by May 18,2007.

The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is the principal oversight committee in the House of Representatives and has broad oversight jurisdiction as set forth in House Rule X. An attachment to this letter provides additional information about how to respond to the Committee's request. I would appreciate your cooperation with this request.

I'll be curious to see what happens here. A little while back, Administrator Griffin made a speech where he thanked Tom Delay (who is allegedly a major crook, but also a big supporter of NASA since he was a Representative from the district where Johnson Space Center is) and said, before Delay resigned, "He's still with us and we need to keep him there." Many people interpreted that as an endorsement, for obvious reasons, which is also a no-no. It was a simple mistake on Griffin's part -- I don't think he was really trying to stump for Delay, he was just endorsing someone who was a friend of NASA. Nevertheless, it was a violation of the Hatch Act, which restricts political appointees from politicking. It was a minor violation and no big deal, but it can't be fun for Mr. Griffin to have to get the letter he did from Henry Waxman. I'm sure right now there are other things on his mind!

Update-- The U.S. Office of Special Counsel investigated Griffin's remarks, and found that he lacked judgment in making them, but nothing worse. Interestingly, they also investigated a broadcast on NASA Select by John Kerry, and also found it violated the Hatch Act; it looks like someone at NASA relied on "incorrect advice" and outdated NASA guidelines. Thanks to commenter JR Keller for pointing this out!

We'll see how this plays out. This White House has been absolutely shameless in its suppression of science and its promotion of fundamentalist religion at NASA and elsewhere. It may be that no one spoke to any NASA employees and nothing will come of this particular letter. But the letter was sent to the heads of 26 other agencies, so we'll see what happens.