Peter Gleick Confesses to Obtaining Heartland Documents Under False Pretenses


I hardly know what to say about the latest developments in the Heartland document dump.  Profanity seems too weak, and incredulity too tame.

To recap for those who weren't following along at home, last week, someone emailed a bunch of climate bloggers documents that purportedly came from the Heartland Institute, a think tank which has been active in promoting skepticism about global warming:

Dear Friends (15 of you):

In the interest of transparency, I think you should see these files from the Heartland Institute. Look especially at the 2012 fundraising and budget documents, the information about donors, and compare to the 2010 990 tax form. But other things might also interest or intrigue you. This is all I have. And this email account will be removed after I send.

Chortling and glee followed as the climate bloggers pored over the documents and posted exerpts, mostly from a "Climate Strategy" memo which had a rather damning way with words.

24 hours after the document dump, Heartland confirmed that someone had basically phished them--talked a support staffer into sending documents from a recent board meeting to the "new email" of a board member.  Except . . . Heartland denied that the "strategy memo" was theirs.  And after reading through it--and the documents--carefully, I was inclined to believe them; the text was all wrong, and while the other documents had been printed to PDF sometime in January, this one had been scanned into a computer less than one day before it was sent to the climate bloggers.  While some journalists argued that all the checkable facts in the memos were backed up by the other documents that Heartland admitted to sending, to me, that merely suggested that it was written by someone who had those documents in their possession.  

But not a full understanding of those documents, because the memo made curious errors.  Most notably, it claimed that the Koch foundation had given $200,000 in 2011, when the actual number was $25,000 ($200,000 is what Heartland's fundraising document indicates they hoped to get in 2012)--and since that money was donated for Health Care News, Heartland's health care newsletter, it's hard to see why it would show up in the climate strategy document, rather than, say, a document about their health care strategy.  Given other anomalies surrounding the document, it seemed to me very likely that whoever had phished the authenticated board package had been disappointed by the lack of sizeable contributions from Big Oil and the Kochs, and so had written the memo to make sure that the documents told a nice, neat story about corruption and secrecy, rather than a boring, equivocal story about an issue advocacy organization with a spot of budget trouble.

By late last week, Steven Mosher was in the comments of multiple blogs, including mine, not-so-subtly pointing a finger in the direction of Peter Gleick, head of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, California and apparently until very recently, the chair of the American Geophysical Union's Task Force on Scientific Ethics.  Here's what Mosher wrote in my comments.

If you want to look for the author of the fake memo, then look for somebody who tweets the word "anti-climate". you'll find it. Look for somebody on the west coast ( the time zone the document was scanned in)

You'll find somebody who doesnt know how to use parenthesis or commas, both in this memo and in other things he has written.

you'll find he mentions himself in the memo

that's all the clues for now. of course its all just speculation. Note, he's not tweeted for a couple days. very rare for him.

The case he made was not implausible.  Gleick's name had always seemed somewhat anomalous in the climate memo--I've never heard the climate skeptics mention him, though they do have a lot of very nasty stuff to say about folks like Michael Mann.  And Gleick has done some writing for the Forbes site, which would explain the frankly lunatic paragraph which portrayed Forbes as something close to the site of a primordial battle between good and evil for the soul and conscience of America.  Plus there were some similarities in the writing styles.

Nonetheless, the case was not strong enough for me to blog about it; in the second post I wrote, I listed my own criteria for figuring out who had written the memos, but they were pretty general, and I was not confident that they'd lead anywhere.  Others were not quite so circumspect.  Roger Pielke Jr, a climate political scientist enviropolicy wonk who is probably less interventionist than the average of his peers, but less so than the average of the American public, tweeted, 

Whodunnit? Is Gleick the Heartland faker? This guy thinks so  uses my blog as evidence.
and then

I emailed @PeterGleick to ask if he faked the Heartland document, no reply yet. I offered to publish his confirmation or denial on my blog.
And Ross Kaminsky, a senior fellow at Heartland, virtually came right out and accused him at the American Spectator.  However, given Heartland's scorched earth tactics, which have involved not-really-veiled threats of civil and criminal actions against anyone who reacted critically to the document dump, I was inclined to reserve judgement.

Then yesterday night, Peter Gleick went and confessed.  To the phishing, but not the faking:
At the beginning of 2012, I received an anonymous document in the mail describing what appeared to be details of the Heartland Institute's climate program strategy. It contained information about their funders and the Institute's apparent efforts to muddy public understanding about climate science and policy. I do not know the source of that original document but assumed it was sent to me because of my past exchanges with Heartland and because I was named in it.

Given the potential impact however, I attempted to confirm the accuracy of the information in this document. In an effort to do so, and in a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics, I solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else's name. The materials the Heartland Institute sent to me confirmed many of the facts in the original document, including especially their 2012 fundraising strategy and budget. I forwarded, anonymously, the documents I had received to a set of journalists and experts working on climate issues. I can explicitly confirm, as can the Heartland Institute, that the documents they emailed to me are identical to the documents that have been made public. I made no changes or alterations of any kind to any of the Heartland Institute documents or to the original anonymous communication.

I will not comment on the substance or implications of the materials; others have and are doing so. I only note that the scientific understanding of the reality and risks of climate change is strong, compelling, and increasingly disturbing, and a rational public debate is desperately needed. My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts -- often anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated -- to attack climate science and scientists and prevent this debate, and by the lack of transparency of the organizations involved. Nevertheless I deeply regret my own actions in this case. I offer my personal apologies to all those affected.
His name has swiftly and silently disappeared from the webpage of the ethics task force.

This is . . . just . . . words fail me . . . I mean, seriously . . . um . . . well, what the hey?!?!

The very, very best thing that one can say about this is that this would be an absolutely astonishing lapse of judgement for someone in their mid-twenties, and is truly flabbergasting coming from a research institute head in his mid-fifties.  Let's walk through the thought process:

You receive an anonymous memo in the mail purporting to be the secret climate strategy of the Heartland Institute.  It is not printed on Heartland Institute letterhead, has no information identifying the supposed author or audience, contains weird locutions more typical of Heartland's opponents than of climate skeptics, and appears to have been written in a somewhat slapdash fashion.  Do you:

A.  Throw it in the trash

B.  Reach out to like-minded friends to see how you might go about confirming its provenance

C.  Tell no one, but risk a wire-fraud conviction, the destruction of your career, and a serious PR blow to your movement by impersonating a Heartland board member in order to obtain confidential documents.

As a journalist, I am in fact the semi-frequent recipient of documents promising amazing scoops, and depending on the circumstances, my answer is always "A" or "B", never "C".

It's a gross violation of journalistic ethics, though perhaps Gleick would argue that he's not a journalist--and in truth, it's hard to feel too sorry for Heartland, given how gleefully they embraced the ClimateGate leaks.  So leave ethics aside: wasn't he worried that impersonating board members in order to obtain confidential material might be, I don't know, illegal?  Forget about the morality of it: the risk is all out of proportion to the possible reward.

Some of the climate bloggers are praising Gleick for coming forward, and complaining that this is distracting from the real story.  And I agree that it's a pity that this is distracting from the important question about how fast the climate is warming, and what we should do about it.  

But that is not the fault of Heartland, or the people who are writing about it.  When a respected public figure says that a couple of intriguing pieces of paper mailed to him by a stranger somehow induced him to assume someone else's identity and flirt with wire fraud . . . well, that's a little distracting.  

Gleick has done enormous damage to his cause and his own reputation, and it's no good to say that people shouldn't be focusing on it.  If his judgement is this bad, how is his judgement on matters of science?  For that matter, what about the judgement of all the others in the movement who apparently see nothing worth dwelling on in his actions?

When skeptics complain that global warming activists are apparently willing to go to any lengths--including lying--to advance their worldview, I'd say one of the movement's top priorities should be not proving them right.  And if one rogue member of the community does something crazy that provides such proof, I'd say it is crucial that the other members of the community say "Oh, how horrible, this is so far beyond the pale that I cannot imagine how this ever could have happened!" and not, "Well, he's apologized and I really think it's pretty crude and opportunistic to make a fuss about something that's so unimportant in the grand scheme of things."  

After you have convinced people that you fervently believe your cause to be more important than telling the truth, you've lost the power to convince them of anything else.

The other thing one must note is that his story is a little puzzling.  We know two things about the memo:

1.  It must have been written by someone who had access to the information in the leaked documents, because it uses precise figures and frequent paraphrases.

2.  It was probably not written by anyone who had intimate familiarity with Heartland's operations, because it made clear errors about the Koch donations--the amount, and the implied purpose.  It also hashed the figures for a sizable program, and may have made other errors that I haven't identified.  

Did someone else gain access to the documents, write up a fake memo, and then snail mail that memo to Dr. Gleick?  Why didn't they just send him everything?

If an insider was the source of the memo, as some have speculated, why did it get basic facts wrong? (I have heard a few suggestions that this was an incredibly elaborate sting by Heartland.  If so, they deserve a prominent place in the supervillain Hall of Fame.)

Why did the initial email to the climate bloggers claim that Heartland was the source of all the documents, when he couldn't possibly have known for sure that this was where the climate strategy memo came from?

Why was this mailed only to Gleick?  Others were mentioned in the memo, but none of them seem to have been contacted--I assume that after a week of feeding frenzy, anyone else who was mailed a copy would have said something by now.  

How did his anonymous correspondent know that Gleick would go to heroic lengths to obtain confidential material which confirmed the contents, and then distribute the entire package to the climate blogs?

How did the anonymous correspondent get hold of the information in the memo?

If he didn't write the memo, how did Mosher correctly identify his involvement?  A good portion of Mosher's argument was based on the similarity in writing styles. Is this an amazing coincidence?  Was the author of the memo engaged in an elaborate conspiracy to destroy Gleick?

I'm sure crazier things have happened, and as someone who has had an unbelievable encounter or two in her life, I always err on the side of believing people.  But I would like more details on this story.  When did Gleick receive the memo?  Was there a cover letter?  From where was it postmarked?  Presumably he has saved the envelope and the original letter, so will he turn them over to a neutral party for investigation?  I'm sure Heartland can come up donors for some forensics.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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