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In Climate Hack Story, Could Talk of Cover-Up Be as Serious as Crime?

23 November 2009 5:20 pm
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The University of East Anglia, whose stolen documents caused a furor of excitement among climate skeptics over the weekend, said today that it had called in police to investigate possible criminal activity.

But university researchers may also find themselves in legal jeopardy if they deleted emails requested under the U.K.’s Freedom of Information (FOIA) legislation, a crime under U.K. law.

The case of the climate hack began last week when an anonymous individual calling himself “FOIA” released hundreds of private emails and documents belonging to East Anglia’s influential Climatic Research Unit.

In recent years, the university had been subject to a flurry of information requests from bloggers and others skeptical of man-made global warming demanding to see raw data used to calculate temperatures, as well as for scientific correspondence.  The university has rejected most of the requests citing various exemptions to the U.K. public disclosure law, which took effect in 2005.

It now appears a data thief may have taken matters into their own hands by copying and releasing the documents.

“It’s definitely a crime to do that in the U.K., and we have reported it to the police,” said Simon Dunford, a spokesman at East Anglia, which is conducting an internal probe.

But the emails, which appear to be genuine, though their authenticity could not be confirmed, indicate a concerted effort to fight the FOI requests that may itself have slipped into questionable territory.

For instance, in May of 2008, the school received a legal information request for correspondence of an East Anglia researcher, Keith Briffa, involved in the preparation of the most recent scientific report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, known as AR4. Two days later, according to the alleged correspondence, Phil Jones, Director of the Climatic Research Unit, sent out an email to colleagues asking them to delete any such emails.

From: Phil Jones <p.jones@xxxxxxxxx.xxx>
To: "Michael E. Mann" <mann@xxxxxxxxx.xxx>
Subject: IPCC & FOI:04:11 2008
Date: Thu May 29 11
Mike,
Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4?
Keith will do likewise. He's not in at the moment - minor family crisis.
Can you also email Gene and get him to do the same? I don't
have his new email address.
We will be getting Caspar to do likewise.
I see that CA claim they discovered the 1945 problem in the Nature paper!!
Cheers
Phil

According to Hazel Moffatt, a partner in the litigation and regulatory department at the law firm DLA Piper in London, deleting emails subject to a FOI request is a criminal offense in the United Kingdom, punishable with a fine. “It’s quite naughty to do that,” said Ms. Moffatt.

In comments on the apparent data theft at Real Climate, Gavin Schmidt of NASA said: "There is an ill-advised suggestion, but there is no evidence that any email that was responsive to a FOI request actually was deleted. Obviously one would hope that none were."

Jones did not respond to a request for comment. In an email, Mann, a climatologist and statistician at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, said, “I did not delete any emails at all in response to Phil Jone's [sic] request, nor did I indicate to him that I would.”

Mann, the author of a well known paleoclimate reconstruction that has been subject to skeptics’ attacks, declined to comment on whether scientists were justified in resisting FOI requests from skeptics.

According to Ross McKitrick, an economist at the University of Guelph in Ontario, who was among those sending FOI demands to East Anglia on behalf of Climate Audit, a skeptics blog. The May FOI request at issue sought information about whether unpublished scientific data had been used in the IPCC report in ways that could violate the Nobel-prize winning groups’ rules.

The leaked emails show Jones and colleagues feared that releasing information would draw them deeper into disputes with amateur scientists, who would use it to create new controversies and cut into their research time.

However, some scientists expressed concern that East Anglia’s refusals could backfire. In one of the emails, climatologist Tom Wigley, of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, cautioned in an email to Jones that “the issue of with-holding data is still a hot potato. ... Yes, there are reasons -- but many *good* scientists appear to be unsympathetic to these. The trouble here is that with-holding data looks like hiding something, and hiding means (in some eyes) that it is bogus science that is being hidden.”

Given the importance of East Anglia’s data and correspondence in shaping climate policy, including via IPCC reports, some mainstream scientists now say they find the evidence of efforts at data withholding troubling. “The problem seems to be that the circling of the wagons strategy developed by small groups of climate researchers in response to the politically motivated attacks,” Judith Curry, a climatologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta wrote in an internet posting this week.

Another potential concern are Jones’ emails stating that he convinced FOI officers not to release data to greenhouse skeptics because they planned to harm the university or setback climate science.  “Think I've managed to persuade UEA to ignore all further FOIA requests if the people have anything to do with Climate Audit,” Jones wrote in a 2007 email.

According to Moffatt, the U.K.’s FOI law is supposed to be “identity blind” meaning that requests should be judged on the merits, not who does the requesting.

Eventually, East Anglia’s refusal to approve FOI requests may have played a role in the leak of the pilfered documents. Stephen McIntyre, a retired industry consultant who runs Climate Audit, speculated on his site that an insider may have leaked the documents and could be protected by whistle-blower laws.

A link to an FTP site containing the documents was first posted last week on the Air Vent, another skeptic blog, by the anonymous poster calling himself “FOIA”. The poster’s message read:

We feel that climate science is, in the current situation, too important to be kept under wraps.

We hereby release a random selection of correspondence, code, and documents.

Hopefully it will give some insight into the science and the people behind it.