Recent investigations by the media, and an impending congressional oversight hearing, have highlighted Vice President Dick Cheney and White House Senior Advisor Karl Rove’s role in censoring the findings of biologists working for the National Marine Fisheries Service.   In 2001, during a severe drought in the Pacific Northwest, the spigot which supplied farmers with water from the Klamath River was shut off by the Bureau of Reclamation.   Despite the opinion of biologists with the National Marine and Fisheries Service that turning the water back on would violate the Endangered Species Act by harming two species of federally protected fish, Vice President Cheney and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove had determined that following the advice of the researchers would alienate the largely Republican farmer base who depended on the water to irrigate their land.   Cheney and Rove ‘s efforts to undermine the efforts of the government scientists proved successful; the spigot was turned on, resulting in the largest fish kill in Western history.   As the National Coalition Against Censorship noted recently in its report Political Science , censorship of government scientists, suppression and distortion of research, and intimidation in federal science agencies violates not only the First Amendment rights of scientists to freely disseminate and discuss their work, but also violates the public’s right to science that does not serve a political agenda.

The recent news accounts illustrate a disturbingly manipulative effort by the Vice President to achieving political goals at the expense of science.   Cheney first looked for a way around the law, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, finding a loophole that would allow a panel to determine that economic hardship outweighs protecting threatened wildlife.   He passed on invoking the loophole, however, ultimately deciding that the administration would receive negative publicity for taking action against endangered or threatened wildlife.   He instead opted to challenge the science protecting the fish.  

In order to "get science on the side of the farmers," Cheney asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to scrutinize the work of the federal biologists.   This approach echoes the advice of Republican pollster Frank Lunzt, who told Republicans: "You need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue by becoming even more active in recruiting experts sympathetic to your view."   By casting doubt on the research of federal biologists, Cheney made it appear as though his efforts to turn the water back on were motivated by legitimate scientific reasons, as opposed to the looming mid-term elections and his eagerness to appease a large group of farmers in Oregon, a battleground state.

In March 2002, the NAS stated that there was "no scientific foundation" for denying water to the farmers.   Michael Kelly, the former lead biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service team criticized the National Academy of Sciences’ report only to have his comments edited out by superiors.   Kelly has since gone public with his belief that "someone at a higher level" had ordered his agency to support the proposal in spite of the consequences to the fish.   In a 2004 interview with The Nation , Kelly stated: "The morale is very low among scientists here.   We are under pressure to get the right results."

Karl Rove’s involvement in the Klamath River issue occurred when he gave a presentation to the Fish and Wildlife Department conference that emphasized the Bush administration’s support for turning the water on again.   A 2003 Wall Street Journal article stated that Rove’s presentation was not "entirely welcome"–especially by officials grappling with the competing arguments made by environmentalists…and Indian tribes, who depend on the salmon for their livelihoods.   Neil McCalen, then an assistant Interior secretary, recalls the "chilling effect" of Mr. Rove’s remarks.   Wayne Smith, then with the department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, says Mr. Rove reminded the managers of the need to "support our base."   Regardless, in 2004, the Interior Department’s inspector general, responding to accusations by John Kerry, stated that White House political advisors had no role in the Klamath River decision.  

The politicization of science that marked the Klamath River incident is not unusual under the Bush administration: James McCarthy, a Harvard climate scientist who has spoken out against the Bush administration’s efforts to censor scientific findings about global warming, stated in an interview with Rolling Stone : "It’s the ideological bent of the current administration.   They seem absolutely resistant to any call to action, no matter what the science says."   Similarly, Roger Kennedy, former director of the National Park Service, stated in an interview with The Nation that the alteration and deletion of scientific information is now standard procedure at Interior.   Kennedy remarked: "It’s hard to decide what is more demoralizing about the Administration’s politicization of the scientific process, its disdain for professional scientists working for our government or its willingness to deceive the American public."

On June 27, 2007, 36 House Democrats from California and Oregon signed a letter to the chairman of the House of Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), calling for an oversight hearing on Vice President Cheney’s role in the Klamath River Basin decisions which resulted in 60 million dollars worth of damages and a 90% decrease in commercial fishing in Oregon and California for the year of 2006.   On June 28, 2007, Rep. Rahall responded to the letter in a statement in which he confirmed that the Committee has already begun examining the "penchant for this Administration to favor politics over science in the implementation of the Endangered Species Act."   While it remains to be seen what the Committee will uncover, it seems that Vice President Cheney and the rest of the Bush administration will have a lot to answer for regarding the censorship of the science surrounding the Klamath River incident.




National Coalition Against Censorship, "Political Science: A Report on Science & Censorship," online: /science/political_science.pdf , (cited 2 July 2007).

Becker, Jo and Barton Gellman, "Leaving No Tracks," Washington Post , 27 June 2007.


Kennedy, Robert F. Jr., "Crimes Against Nature," Rolling Stone , 18 November 2003.

Becker, Jo and Barton Gellman, "Leaving No Tracks," Washington Post , 27 June 2007.

Becker, Jo and Barton Gellman, "Leaving No Tracks," Washington Post , 27 June, 2007.

Kennedy, Robert F. Jr., "The Junk Science of George W. Bush," The Nation , 8 March 2004.

Hamburger, Tom, "Oregon Water Saga Illuminates Rove’s Methods with Agencies," The Wall Street Journal , 2003.

Daly, Mather, "House Panel will Hold Hearing Into Cheney’s Role in Oregon Salmon Die-Off," The Associated Press, 28 June 2007.

Dickinson, Tim. "The Secret Campaign of President Bush’s Administration to Deny Global Warming," Rolling Stone, 20 June 2007.   Kennedy, Robert F. Jr., "The Junk Science of George W. Bush," The Nation , 8 March, 2004.

Daly, Mather, "House Panel will Hold Hearing Into Cheney’s Role in Oregon Salmon Die-Off," The Associated Press, 28 June 2007.

Committee on Natural Resources, "Press Release: Rahall to Continue Probe of Politicization of Endangered Species Act- Klamath River to be on the Agenda," 28 June 2007.