Exclusive: Climatologist Says He Deleted E-mails, But Not at Mann's Behest

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Eli Kintisch
2011-03-09 13:44
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Investigative files released yesterday to a climate science blog by an unnamed U.S. lawmaker suggest a new twist in the ongoing University of East Anglia climate e-mails saga. Other online writers argue that the files contain evidence that a government climate scientist in May 2008 deliberately deleted e-mails related to a major climate report.

ScienceInsider can reveal that the scientist, Eugene Wahl of the National Climatic Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, admits to deleting the e-mails, which was done during his tenure at Alfred University in New York. That was before he became an employee at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But online reports on the investigative files have misconstrued a central point, he says, assuming that embattled climatologist Michael Mann of Penn State Univeristy told him to do so. On the contrary, Wahl says, he was responding to a request by East Anglia's Phil Jones that Mann forwarded to him "without any additional comment ... there was no request from [Mann] to delete emails." (The full statement follows.)

The e-mails that Wahl deleted included 2006 correspondence between Wahl and Keith Briffa of East Anglia, and Wahl says they were made public in 2009 as part of the East Anglia e-mails trove.

The scientists' correspondence was about a report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that they were working on, and for which Briffa was a lead author. In May 2008, University of East Anglia climate scientist Phil Jones, who had been a lead IPCC author the year before, was faced with a U.K. Information Act request for correspondence related to the IPCC report. He asked Mann to delete e-mails "you may have had with Keith," and asked him to forward the same request to Wahl. Mann responded the same day, saying that he would "contact Gene about this ASAP," and he forwarded Jones's note to Wahl. (Mann deleted none of the emails in question, a Penn State investigation found.)

This chain of events has been known since late 2009, with the release of the East Anglia e-mails trove. But yesterday, first on the Climate Audit blog run by Steve McIntyre, parts of a transcript of an interview of Wahl by the Department of Commerce's Inspector General revealed for the first time that Wahl told the IG that he had received Jones's message via Mann.

The interview was part of an investigation the IG tells ScienceInsider is ongoing; on 18 February the IG released a report to Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) on certain aspects of NOAA's role in the East Anglia e-mails imbroglio and subsequent e-mails. That report largely clears NOAA scientists of misconduct, though it does criticize the agency's handling of some Freedom of Information Act requests. It does not mention Wahl by name but does mention Jones's request to delete e-mails. A spokesperson for the IG would not comment on the investigation or the substance of what Wahl told investigators.

Bloggers and online commentators made much of the Wahl quotes yesterday, attacking Mann. The widely read Watts Up With That? blog ran a lengthy item that said, "Sources confirm that a federal inspector has questioned Eugene Wahl and Wahl has confirmed that Mann asked him to delete emails," citing no evidence beyond the forwarded e-mail. A story on The Daily Caller said that the quotes from the Wahl interview showed that the Pennsylvania State investigation, which exonerated Mann of any misconduct, was a "whitewash."

Mann, reached on vacation in Hawaii, said the stories yesterday were "libelous" and false. "They're spreading a lie about me," he said of the Web sites. "This has been known for a year and a half that all I did was forward Phil's e-mail to Eugene." Asked why he sent the e-mail to his colleague, Mann said, "I felt Eugene Wahl had to be aware of this e-mail … it could be used against him. I didn't delete any e-mails and nor did I tell Wahl to delete any e-mails." Why didn't Mann call Wahl to discuss the odd request? "I was so busy. It's much easier to e-mail somebody. No where did I approve of the instruction to destroy e-mails."

Full statement provided to ScienceInsider from Eugene Wahl below:

The Daily Caller blog yesterday contained an inaccurate story regarding a correspondence that was part of the emails hacked from East Anglia University Climate Research Unit (CRU) in November 2009.

For the record, while I received the email from CRU as forwarded by Dr. Mann, the forwarded message came without any additional comment from Dr. Mann; there was no request from him to delete emails. At the time of the email in May 2008, I was employed by Alfred University, New York. I became a NOAA employee in August 2008.

The emails I deleted while a university employee are the correspondence I had with Dr. Briffa of CRU regarding the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, all of which have been in the public domain since the CRU hack in November 2009. This correspondence has been extensively examined and no misconduct found. As a NOAA employee, I follow agency record retention policies and associated guidance from information technology staff.

Dr. Eugene R. Wahl

March 9, 2011

*This item has been corrected. The original item stated that Wahl's deletion of e-mails was revealed on blogs yesterday; what was revealed was Wahl's explicit admission of receiving Jones's message via Mann. The item also omitted the fact that Jones told Mann to ask Wahl to delete them.

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