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Kyla Bennett

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Don’t Mention COVID-19 at NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is supposed to be a science-based agency. But you sure would not know it, of late.

NOAA has experienced unprecedented political interference with its scientific work, even to the point where senior officials are making factually incorrect or incomplete statements. Things have gotten especially bad on the “wet” side of NOAA, sometimes called the National Marine Fisheries Service or NOAA Fisheries.

How bad?

Well, consider this directive issued June 22, 2020 on discussing the COVID-19 pandemic “in documents that are publically [sic] available.” Employees are given three options:

“1. Option 1 – Preferred approach.  Make no reference to anything COVID related.”

I am sure we would all prefer that COVID didn’t exist but since it does, pretending there is no elephant – let alone a stampeding herd of elephants – in the room is disingenuous.

“2. Option 2. Use general terms to discuss local or regional travel restrictions or refer to CDC guidance.”

The memo then gives examples of how to obliquely tiptoe around the existence and impacts of this global pandemic. Option 2, however, carries a stern, underlined warning:

Any changes to these sentences and phrases, even minor ones, require F-Suite review  and will lengthen the review process.”

Where is F-Suite, you might ask? Why, it is the lair of Sam Rauch, NOAA Fisheries Deputy Assistant Administrator for regulatory programs, i.e., the resident Trump-ocrat.

Then, there is the third option:

“3. Option 3. Limited direct mention of COVID-19 or pandemic.”Coronavirus

This one carries an even sterner, underlined caution:

F-Suite will need to approve the use of this option for any action before documents are drafted.”

This is followed by an even more sobering note: “Use of this option will result in lengthened and additional review.” OMG. Not just lengthened but lengthened and additional. Kiss your outward facing paper goodbye. Talk about a cancel culture.

Given its botched performance, one might expect the Trump White House to be sensitive about COVID discussions, but NOAA Fisheries has almost nothing to do with pandemic response.

The problem, however, is that the line between a hyper-political White House and executive branch agencies has been all but erased by now. Today, all agencies, down to the field level, are expected in some way to contribute to Trump’s reelection – or at least not impede it. Enforcing this deep saturation are political appointees like Sam Rauch.

While these agencies were never completely immunized from politics, today their very mission seems totally subordinated to politics – so much so that agencies like NOAA Fisheries is abandoning its legal mandate to recover threatened and endangered marine life, such as the rapidly vanishing right whale.

Memos like these also challenge PEER’s mission – which is to enable public servants to speak honestly with their true employers – you. Political appointees are not entitled to censor factual material or infantilize professionals, in some cases PhDs, by issuing lists of forbidden words.

We will continue to work toward the day when gag orders, mandatory euphemisms, and memos like these have no place in our body politic.


Kyla Bennett is PEER’s Director of Science Policy as well as the Director of PEER’s New England field office.