The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration acting chief scientist said in an email to colleagues Sunday that he is investigating whether the agency's response to President Donald Trump's Hurricane Dorian tweets constituted a violation of NOAA policies and ethics.
In an email to NOAA staff that was obtained by The Washington Post, the official, Craig McLean, called the agency's response "political" and a "danger to public health and safety."
Trump's incorrect assertion on Sept. 1 that Alabama was at risk from Hurricane Dorian set off a chain of confusion and outrage among the public, and within NOAA. At the time, the National Weather Service's forecast guidance showed only a very small risk to tropical-storm-force winds.
While the NWS's Birmingham, Alabama division quickly corrected the president on Sept. 1 without naming him, NOAA officials caused an internal uproar on Sept. 6 when the agency issued an unsigned statement that defended Trump's false claim about Alabama and admonished the Weather Service's Birmingham division for speaking "in absolute terms."
Scientists attacked NOAA officials for conceding to Trump during a weather emergency, when accuracy and messaging are vital to keep the public safe. The American Meteorological Society issued a statement of support for the NWS, writing: "AMS believes the criticism of the Birmingham forecast office is unwarranted; rather they should have been commended for their quick action based on science in clearly communicating the lack of threat to the citizens of Alabama."
In his email to employees Sunday, McLean criticized his agency's public statement, saying it prioritized politics over NOAA's mission.
"The NWS Forecaster(s) corrected any public misunderstanding in an expert and timely way, as they should," McLean wrote. "There followed, last Friday, an unsigned press release from 'NOAA' that inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the NWS forecaster. My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political."
He also wrote that "the content of this press release is very concerning as it compromises the ability of NOAA to convey life-saving information necessary to avoid substantial and specific danger to public health and safety."
"If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster's warnings and products, that specific danger arises," McLean wrote.
As a result, McLean told his staff that "I am pursuing the potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity."
"I have a responsibility to pursue these truths," he added. "I will."
Agency officials did not immediately provide comment to The Post on Monday.
The confusion around Trump's statements has caused a maelstrom within some of the government's most vital scientific agencies. Trump continued to double down on his initial false claim about Alabama that week and displayed an altered map where the so-called "cone of uncertainty" had been altered with a Sharpie to include the state.
The agency also appeared to try to correct the record without angering the president. According to emails obtained by The Post last Friday revealed that NOAA staff were instructed to "only stick with official National Hurricane Center forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts which hit the news this afternoon" and not to "provide any opinion."
This article was written by Kayla Epstein, Andrew Freedman and Jason Samenow, reporters for The Washington Post.