Science or Politics?
A question for the new millennium: When there is no paper, is there still a paper trail? Answer: Not unless you vacuum the Internet and print the download. Which is what Caroline Kennedy at the Washington-based Defenders of Wildlife did in early January, right before George W. Bush took office.
"I felt kind of paranoid about archiving the site," said Kennedy, until she checked again three weeks later, just after Bush assumed office.
Under President Clinton, the US Fish and Wildlife Service website had documented how oil drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would devastate the local environment and adversely impact Native peoples. The Bush Administration, however, had made a campaign issue of its enthusiastic support for oil exploitation in the arctic sanctuary for polar bears, snow geese, musk oxen and vast herds of migrating caribou.
When Kennedy looked at the revamped site, she found that the scientific evidence was less conclusive. "They watered it down," she said, "to paint a rosier picture of the impact of oil drilling."
Unlike hard documents that can be collected through Freedom of Information Act requests or ferreted from musty files, postings on the web are as insubstantial as the Internet itself. They exist only as long as they float in cyberspace, and they vanish forever like a cloud on a summer day. New versions not only disappear the past, they rewrite the present.
Rachel Levin, a US Fish and Wildlife spokesperson in Washington, said that Alaska altered the site "on their own initiative."
"There was no communication between DC and the Refuge specifically requesting anything be taken down," Levin said. "They made changes to make it a more neutral, informational site."
Officials at the Alaska Fish and Wildlife regional office also say they revised the website without any instructions from Washington.
Anne Morekill, acting deputy refuge manager in Anchorage, defended the alterations as "just wordsmithing. It didn't read quite right before. We just wanted to tighten it up." After being presented with specific examples she added, "We changed value- laden words like 'destroy' to 'impact.' "
Karen Boylan, assistant director of regional affairs at the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Service, says her agency was "not directly intimidated by the Administration."
But the Alaska office would have had to be snowblind not to see the website--and the refuge itself--as a provocative target in the sights of the new Interior Department. In her previous stint at the Reagan Interior Department under James Watt, new Secretary Gale Norton had vigorously advocated opening ANWR to oil company exploration.
With a finger to the changing political winds, the Alaska office held a series of meetings and, after circulating drafts of the new text, implemented a strategy of pre-emptive surgery: Amputate the most inflammatory parts of the website before Washington hacked out its heart.
"We made an honest attempt to keep [the website] below the radar screen.... We took down conclusions that were inconsistent with the new Administration," Boylan said, but "left the evidence for people to draw their own conclusions. Conclusions are not part of sound science."
Reluctant to admit that they censored the site to ward off political pressure, the Alaska officials fall back on "sound science"--a buzz phrase with which Washington justifies everything from not cutting allowable levels of arsenic in the drinking water and C0
Defenders of Wildlife argues that the conclusions on the Clinton- era web page that drilling will "destroy,"disrupt," diminish" and "damage" the environment are not simply opinions. They are based on rigorous environmental impact studies; and the fact that their accuracy cannot be irrefutably proven unless drilling actually goes ahead and wreaks havoc is no reason to dismiss them.
The changes on the website, Defenders of Wildlife asserts, had far more to do with politics than science. But as the current controversy shows in black and white, the two are inseparable.