A Loyal Bushie Burrows Into Obama’s System

January 23, 2009 6:48 a.m.
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The Bush administration’s participation in the personnel tactic known as “burrowing” has been well-reported in recent weeks. The practice isn’t unique to the Bush crowd; during presidential transitions, political appointees eager to stay on the government payroll often wriggle their way into secure civil service positions — despite the differing political beliefs of the White House’s new occupant.

But because the central objective of burrowing is for political appointees to fly under the radar while Washington changes hands, it’s often hard to tell when the practice is actually occurring. Consider the case of Kathie Olsen, who just made a very curious move: going from the No. 2 post at the National Science Foundation to the far less influential job of “senior advisor” in the NSF’s Office of Information and Resource Management.As Science magazine observes, Olsen had already submitted her resignation to the Obama administration and would have been out the door had she not slipped into her new, seemingly secure post. And this isn’t just any Bush appointee avoiding the need to find a new job — Olsen was at the forefront of the former president’s systematic denial of the human causes of climate change.

Before becoming deputy director of the NSF, Olsen was the associate director of the Bush White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Her immediate boss there was Bush science adviser John Marburger, who was implicated in the 2007 censorship of congressional testimony that would have publicly illustrated the human health risks of the warming climate.

Remember Phil Cooney, the once and future oil industry representative who habitually erased from government documents any evidence that fossil fuels cause global warming? It was Olsen who first handed Cooney a debunked, Big-Oil-underwritten study that purported to disprove the existence of climate change. As Rolling Stone reported in 2007:

“It was sham science,” says McCarthy, the Harvard scientist. “It’s almost laughable, except that this study was held up by the administration as a definitive refutation of the temperature record.”

But even as the paper was being discredited, it was causing great excitement in the White House. When Kathie Olsen of the Office of Science and Technology Policy forwarded the study to Cooney, he responded with an enthusiastic, “Thanks, Kathie!” Six minutes later, according to internal e-mails, the study was in the hands of Kevin O’Donovan, who served as Cheney’s point man on climate. The study also grabbed President Bush’s attention …

During Olsen’s 2002 Senate confirmation hearing, before she officially joined the Bush OSTP, her wavering avoidance of climate change questions aroused the ire of none other than Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). From Science magazine’s report, available on Nexis:

McCain first read a description of how “warming in the 21st century will be significantly larger than in the 20th century … and temperatures in the U.S. will rise by about 5 degrees -9 degrees F … on average in the next 100 years.” Without identifying the source — a recent White House report that President George W. Bush has dismissed as mere speculation — McCain then asked each nominee whether he or she agreed with the statement.

Olsen and Russell initially refused to answer the question. Olsen, despite NASA’s dominant role in the global change initiative, later said that she “was nervous … [and] didn’t understand the paragraph,” adding that “I don’t know if we have enough data to make that statement.” Foiled in his attempt to solicit the nominees’ views on climate change, McCain declared that “I will oppose your nominations until I get an answer” and stalked out of the hearing.

How was Olsen permitted to slip inside the NSF bureaucracy after playing such a front-and-center role in the Bush administration’s politicization of science? We’re looking into whether her case fits the technical definition of “burrowing” — and what the Obama team can do about it — but suffice to say that her survival hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“This internal NSF personnel action raises serious questions concerning whether a high-level Bush White House science appointee is trying to ‘burrow in’ at the agency,” said a senior congressional investigator with knowledge of NSF. “Usually when a director or deputy director vacates their post, they are not given a non-competitive, SES-level job at the same agency. This merits scrutiny.”

We have a call into the NSF to confirm whether the new “senior advisor” post announced last week is senior enough to ensure that Olsen could not be reassigned for several months.

Late Update: An NSF spokeswoman confirms that Olsen has reinstatement rights as a member of the Senior Executive Service, or SES. This could mean that civil-service rules preclude anyone in the Obama administration from acting on the matter. We’ll keep you posted.

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