So who wrote the ‘deniergate’ memo?

So, at least one of the mysteries surrounding the documents leaked from the Heartland Institute has been solved after Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and co-founder of the Pacific Institute of Oakland, California issued a statement via the Huffington Post explaining the circumstances in which he obtained the documents.

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.

Gleick has also resigned from the American Geophysical Union’s Task Force on Scientific Ethics, for what should be fairly obvious and understandable reasons.

On the question of whether Gleick should be lauded as a whistleblower or publicly castigated and consigned to the nether hells of academia in a state of abject disgrace is a matter on which I prefer to keep my own counsel for the time being. What I am rather more interested are the outstanding questions relating to the authenticity, or otherwise, of these documents and, in particular, of the memo that Gleick claims to have received in the mail from a still unidentified source.

According to the Heartland Institute, the memo itself is allegedly a fake. As for the other documents, the Heartland Institute’s own statement indicates that these are genuine but it also raises the possibility, in its statement, that they may have been altered or amended, presumably to fit the contents of allegedly fake memo. Actually, when I say that the Heartland Institute has raised this as a possibility, what they has actually done is stated that the cannot as yet confirm whether or not any of the other documents may have been altered or amended and as a full week has now gone by since the publication of these documents on DeSmogBlog I’d suggest that the balance of probabilities has shifted fairly decisively in favour of treating the ‘may have been altered’ claim as a case of blowing smoke.

In the absence of anything more from the Heartland Institute on the subject of alterations to its board papers the only ‘evidence’ that anyone has managed to advance in support of these claims is based on the observation that the internal metadata in all of the documents indicates that they were ‘modified’ on the 14th February 2012. Unfortunately, this information is much less illuminating than some people appear to think as, at most, it can be taken as indication that all these files were opened directly from the email to which they were attached and then saved to the recipient’s hard-drive from within their local version of Acrobat. The file modification dates on these files do not, therefore, provide any tangible evidence that the files have actually been altered in any way; this could be confirmed only by making a direct comparison with the original files held by the Heartland Institute.

The curio in the package sent to DeSmogBlog is, of course, the confidential climate strategy memo. Unlike all but one of the other documents, the pdf versions of which were generated directly from original Word Perfect documents, the memo was scanned to a pdf file from a hard copy that Gleick claims was sent to him, anonymously, by post – the other document in this format is copy of the Institute’s 2010 IRS return.

Neither of these documents contain much in the way of significant metadata. Both have modification dates/times for the 14th that are within the range, timewise, of the other files, showing – one suspects – nothing more than the date and time these were saved to disk from Acrobat by whoever they were sent to at DeSmogBlog.

The pdf of the IRS form was created in July 2011  and the form is marked ‘client copy’. The creation date/time shows that it was produced on a computer that was set to Eastern Daylight Time, rather than Central Daylight Time, which suggests that it was generated at the Institute’s Washington DC office and not its headquarters, which is in Chicago. But for an IRS ‘received’ stamp and a block of redacted information on the first page of the document, the form is identical to the copy held on file by the IRS.

The memo was scanned direct to pdf on 13th Feb 2012 using an Epson scanner and standard Epson software on a Mac operating on Pacific Standard Time, all of which is consistent with Gleick’s statement -we know it was scanned on a Mac and not PC from the file’s font metadata which shows that a Mac version of the Times typeface are embedded in the document rather the PC version, Times New Roman, which is embedded in the documents that Gleick obtaining from the Heartland Institute.

Both documents are otherwise clean scans with no visual distortions or artifacts, e.g. staple or crease marks, and so – assuming that Gleick’s account of the manner in which he obtained these documents is correct – we can infer that they were sent, without folding, in a large envelope.

Forensically, the files don’t give us much to work with other than confirmation that the memo was not amongst the files that Gleick was sent by a hapless employee of the Heartland Institute.

What about the contents of the memo, compared to files that came from the Heartland Institute, and in particular the contents of the 2012 Budget and Fundraising plan?

There the plot thickens considerably because although the memo contains two verifiable errors – both of which are numerical – its contents, in terms of both factual information and wording, are otherwise so close to the contents of Budget documentand Fundraising Plan that the memo could only be have been written by someone who had access to these document.

For example, the Fundraising Plan describes the Institute’s relationship with the Charles G Koch Foundation as follows:

The Charles G. Koch Foundation returned as a Heartland donor in 2011. We expect to ramp up their level of support in 2012 and gain access to the network of philanthropists they work with.

While the memo states:

We will also pursue additional support from the Charles G. Koch Foundation. They returned as a Heartland donor in 2011 with a contribution of $200,000. We expect to push up their level of support in 2012 and gain access to their network of philanthropists, if our focus continues to align with their interests.

Although the memo paraphrases the contents of the Fundraising Plan, the manner in which its paraphrased is too close to the original to conceivable have been put together by someone who hadn’t seen the plan.

This passage from the memo is, however, one of the two sections that contains a numerical error. The actual donation that the Heartland Institute received from the Charles G Koch Foundation in 2011 was only $25,000; the figure of $200,ooo is the amount that the Institute hopes to secure from Koch in 2012 – or perhaps ‘hoped’ as the Koch Foundation has since stated that it has no plans to contribute any funds to the Institute this year. Moreover, the $25,000 contribution that the Heartland Institute did receive is recorded in the plan as having been in given support of its monthly publication, Health Care News, with the same line item in a table of renewing £10,000 + donors indicating that this may be what that increased figure of $200,000 for 2012 would be sought for.

Koch may have returned to the fold as a funder in 2011, but not explicitly as funder of any of the Institute’s climate change related activities – at least not according to the Institute’s own fundraising plan.

So that supports Heartland’s claim that the memo is a fake, yes?

No, not necessarily.

For starters I managed to track down a copy of the Institute’s accounts for 2009 and these show that of the $6.87 million recorded as assets for that year only $200,000 were recorded as ‘temporarily restricted’ funds, so regardless of what the fundraising plan might say in terms of linking donations to specific programmes, almost all the funding it receives is given as unrestricted funds allowing any notional surpluses in funding allocated to specific programmes to be redirected to other programmes or to the organisation’s general operating costs. There is, therefore, nothing to prevent funds designated in the fundraising plan for, say, its health care news programme, being redirected internally to finance other activities, such its a climate change related programmes.

Based on the 2012 budget, the Institute’s projected expenditure on health-related activities and programmes comes in at just over $270,000, excluding the new ‘Free to Choose Medicine’ project which has an allocated budget for the year of $751,000 and a fundraising target of $1,000,000, half of which is projected to come from new donors. This figure includes the editorial and publishing costs of Health Care News and salaries for two legislative specialists working on health care issues in its government relations department; the figures of Health Care News alone come in at around $140,000 for the upcoming year.

Based on the same table of renewing £10,000+ donors, which gives actual donations for 2010 and 2011 in addition to projected figures for 2012, the figures show that the Institute raised just over $607,000, booked against Health Care News, in 2010, rising to $888,000 in 2011 with as projected total of $1,495,000 for 2012, although this includes $400,000 from Bartley J Madden which clearly relates to the new ‘Freedom to Choose Medicine’ project.

Based on the figures in the fundraising plan, Health Care News generates some very healthy surpluses which the Institute is free to use to cross-subsidise its other programmes.

So, although the fundraising plan appears to indicate that the $200,000 that the Institute hoped to obtain from the Koch Foundation was intended to fund its health care programmes, this doesn’t mean that those funds – had they been obtained – would be used for that purpose or that they were even necessarily being sought for that purpose.

The second error in the memo is to be found in this section:

At present we sponsor the NIPCC to undermine the official United Nation’s IPCC reports and paid a team of writers $388,000 in 2011 to work on a series of editions of Climate Change Reconsidered. Expenses will be about the same in 2012. NIPCC is currently funded by two gifts a year from two foundations, both of them requesting anonymity. Another $88,000 is earmarked this year for Heartland staff, incremental expenses, and overhead for editing, expense reimbursement for the authors, and marketing.

However, the fundraising plan states:

Heartland sponsors the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), an international network of scientists who write and speak out on climate change. Heartland pays a team of scientists approximately $300,000 a year to work on a series of editions of Climate Change Reconsidered, the most comprehensive and authoritative rebuttal of the United Nations’ IPCC reports. Another $88,000 is earmarked for Heartland staff, incremental expenses, and overhead for editing, expense reimbursement for the authors, and marketing.

As with the memo’s treatment of the Koch Foundations donations we have a discrepancy in the figures which appears to be a transcription error on the part of the memo’s author, albeit a rather puzzling one given that wording of memo is so close to that of the fundraising plan that one has to wonder why anyone drafting a fake memo based on this information would choose to manual transcribe the contents of the fundraising plan in preference to just using cut and paste before tweaking the exact wording of the memo.

Where one can easily how the incorrect figure for the Koch donation might have crept into the memo, as this required a putative forger to extract information from a table of 93 donors running across four page of the fundraising plan, its much more difficult to see how this error could have crept into the memo, unnoticed, when all the financial information is presented in black and white and in format that pretty much demand the use of cut and paste to get it into the memo.

So what does this tell about who the most likely author of the memo might be?

On the face of it we have two plausible options and two or three rather implausible ones.

One of the plausible options is Peter Gleick, not least because screenshots released by the Heartland Institute appear to show that Gleick was sent the budget and fundraising plan on 6 February 2012, a full seven days before the pdf file containing the memo was created, according to the metadata in the document.

Supporting this possibility we have the timeline leading up to the release of these documents to DeSmogBlog and, arguably, the rather frank and unguarded wording of the memo in statements such as:

[Dr David Wojick’s] effort will focus on providing curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and
uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.

And…

At present we sponsor the NIPCC to undermine the official United Nation’s IPCC reports and paid a team of writers $388,000 in 2011 to work on a series of editions of Climate Change Reconsidered.

These statements, taken at face value, provide confirmation of allegations that climate change activists have levelled against the work of the NIPCC, and of allegations that certainly would have been levelled at Dr Wojick’s “Global Warming Curriculum for K-12 Classrooms” project once the existence of this project became a matter of public knowledge.

However this all presupposes that Gleick would feel it necessary to draft a fake memo spelling out, in frank terms, the same inferences that climate change activists would have made, and blogged, had they merely been given the budget and fundraising plan to work with.

Why would Gleick take the risk of trying to gild the lily when he would know perfectly well that there would no shortage of activist bloggers who would be willing to do that for him, working only from the budget and fundraising plan?

Why bother with a fake memo when the genuine documents you’ve obtained from the Heartland Institute will do the job almost as nicely and deprive the Heartland Institute with an easy route to plausible deniability?

Like the error with the figures of the NIPCC’s budget, this really doesn’t make sense.

Moving on to the realms of the implausible, its hypothetically possible that the memo could have been written by the unknown third party who, according to Gleick’s statement, set this whole thing in train by anonymously posting the memo to him.

However, this raises questions as to exactly how this unknown third party could have obtained copies of the budget and fundraising plan without which the memo could not have been drafted with anything like the accuracy it exhibits, even allowing for the erroneous figures it contains for the Koch Foundation’s donation and the NIPCC budget. Nothing in any of the statements made, to date, by the Heartland Institute, seems to indicate that they believe that either of these documents could have got out into the wild before they were emailed to Gleick, which suggests that its unlikely that they could have fallen into the hands of anyone who might be motivated to fake a memo showing the activities of the Institute in a frank and rather damning light, rendering that option implausible.

We cannot, also, rule out the possibility of an anonymous whistleblower within the Heartland Institute, but as such a whistleblower would have had to have access to the budget and fundraising plan in order to draft the memo, on has to wonder why they would go to the trouble of writing such a memo rather than post the real documents to Gleick? This, again, seems rather implausible.

The other implausible possibility that has been raised is that of the memo being a deliberate sting by someone at the Heartland Institute, i.e. an attempt to discredit Gleick by engineering a scandal similar to that which engulfed Dan Rather over the authenticity of the Killian documents, which were highly critical of George W Bush’s service in the Air National Guard.

The problem I have with this hypothesis is simply that although the memo contains a couple of errors, it also includes rather a lot of accurate information as well, particularly in relation to the Institute’s regular payments to Craig Idso, Fred Singer and Robert Carter, the funding allocated to Wojick’s curriculum project and to a new website for tracking temperature station data which is to be run by Anthony Watt, not to mention that accurate figures were also given for the sums donated in 2010 and 2011 by the Institute’s major ‘Anonymous Donor’. That’s a lot of accurate information for the Institute to be giving away, unnecessarily, to its critics in circumstances in which the Institute could not have predicted, in advance, that Gleick would resort to a bit of email scamming in order to obtain the internal documents necessary to stand-up the figures given in the memo.

Neither of these options seem plausible and that leaves us with just one further possibility to consider; the possibility that the memo may, in fact, be genuine.

In the last couple of days, Shawn Otto and Greg Laden have both run stylometric and textometric analyses of the disputed memo and both have produced result which appear to indicate that the most likely author is Heartland Institute president Joseph Bast.

I’m not proposing to run the same kind of analysis – two independent tests is enough for the time being – however one of the most striking things about the memo, apart from its obvious and unguarded cynicism, is its semi-formal and, in place, almost conversational tone, particular when you compare the text of the memo to that of the budget. It doesn’t read like a formal memo, at leat not the kind of formal memo that been drafted by someone sitting in front of a word processor. It reads much more like an email or, perhaps more pointedly, like a memo that’s been dictated using a dictaphone, for a secretary to write up, by someone who is sufficiently familiar with the contents of the other documents for them to feel confident about summarising the contents of the budget and fundraising plan from memory without the need to refer back to the original documents to check all the figures and exact wording.

This impression is further reinforced by the error in the memo relating to the figures given for the NIPCC’s budget, an error which doesn’t really make sense if you assume that it was made by someone drafting a fake memo using documents – the budget and fundraising plan – with which they are altogether unfamiliar but certainly does make sense if you assume that the memo was dictated on the fly, and in terms of the figures given, from memory, by someone who has an intimate knowledge of the contents of these documents.

The error in the NIPCC figures is one that you wouldn’t expect to see someone make if they were transcribing the figures from the original document, particularly when the option of using cut and paste is obviously open to them, but it is the kind of error that someone quoting the figures from memory could easily make – when you’ve got only three figures to play with from memory, two line items and a total, its quite easy to get in a tangle and verbally quote the total rather than the larger of the two line items, particular when both figures being with the words ‘three hundred’

A similar verbal slip could also quite easily account for the error in the Koch Foundation figure, as long as you have reason to include that figure in the memo, and there is nothing in either the budget or fundraising plan that would explicitly rule out the possibility that the Institute might have been hoping to solicit support from the Koch Foundation for its climate change activities, having successful got them back on board as funder, the previous year, via a different project.

This doesn’t, of course, prove that the memo was written – or dictated – by Joseph Bast but it does suggest that Bast is at least as plausible an author for this memo as Gleick, or anyone else, despite the Heartland Institute’s claim that the memo is a fake, so maybe the next line of enquiry that need to be pursued is simply that of whether or not Joseph Bast owns/uses a dictaphone.

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  • peteswordz

    Just to be slightly pedantic, ” the internal metadata in all of the documents indicates that they were ‘modified’ on the 14th February 2012″ isn’t a fact. All you actually know is that the documents were modified on a computer set to a particular time.