Russell Inquiry: The Question That No One Dare Ask?

  • Date: 11/07/10

One of the most sensational emails brought to light by Climategate concerns Phil Jones’ intention to delete emails relating the IPCC’s Fourth Asessment Report and asking others to do likewise. It was addressed to Professor Michael Mann who, like Jones, has played a leading role in the IPCC process:29th May 2008: -Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re

AR4? Keith will do likewise. He’s not in at the moment – minor family crisis. Can you also email Gene and get him to do the same? I don’t have his new email address. We will be getting Caspar to do likewise”.

Russell report page 92, paragraph 28

On the same day when the Russell Report declared that the ‘rigour and honesty as scientists’ of CRU staff was ‘beyond doubt’, it was also announced that Jones would continue to work at the university, although not as its director of CRU. Inserting the qualification ‘as scientists’ after ‘rigour and honesty’ looks like a very cautious nuance.

Given this prima facie evidence of an intention to suppress information about the way in which part of an IPCC report was drafted, surely it must be a priority of any independent inquiry into the conduct of the CRU scientists to find out whether the deletions mentioned took place. This matters because if the culture among scientists involved in assessing the evidence for AGW condones subterfuge, then it is right that this should be generally known.

This is what the Executive Summary of the Russell Report has to say about the deletion of emails:

On the allegation that CRU does not appear to have acted in a way consistent with the spirit and intent of the FoIA or EIR, we find that there was unhelpfulness in responding to requests and evidence that e-mails might have been deleted in order to make them unavailable should a subsequent request be made for them. University senior management should have accepted more responsibility for implementing the required processes for FoIA and EIR compliance. [my emphasis]

Russell report page 14, paragraph 27

The report is very detailed, running to 160 pages. It has taken months to produce, and is rumoured to have cost several hundred thousand pounds. Yet the inquiry has apparently failed to determine whether the then director of CRU deleted emails, and incited other to do likewise, because their content might prove embarrassing if they became public knowledge. I can find no evidence in the report that the inquiry panel even attempted to do so. How could this be?

There are  two obvious possibilities, neither of which reflect credit on what the Universtiy of East Anglia claim was an independent inquiry. It would seem possible that Jones was never asked for a full explanation, or that he may have been questioned about this matter, but the inquiry has omitted to include his response in the report.

In a recent interview with Chanel 4 News Professor Edward Acton, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, admitted that although he had asked Phil Jones whether he had deleted emails that were the subject of FOI requests, he had not asked him if he had deleted any emails in case they might become the subject of a FOI request.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: What do you think was the purpose of trying to hide e-mails, or delete e-mails, by Mr [sic] Jones?

Professor Edward Acton: I asked Mr Jones if – Professor Jones – if he had deleted any e-mails subject to a FOI request. He had not.

KGM: That’s a slightly different question. I mean, because there was no FOI request, he was not guilty of deleting something that was subject to a… [waves arms] freedom of information request… But, nonetheless, things were hidden, presumably because he thought there would be requests for them.

EA: No, not to my knowledge. I do know that he has a very tidy two-monthly system of deleting e-mails, as rather a lot of people do.

KGM: So it wasn’t that he thought that “these could be problematic, I’d better get rid of them”…

EA: No reason to think that..

KGM: Did you ask him that specifically?

EA: What I asked him was whether he had done anything to contravene the FOI Act.

KGM: So you didn’t ask him that.

EA: I never asked anybody that, the question you are after.

It would appear that, for Professor Acton at least, there is an important distinction between deleting emails that are the subject of a Freedom of Information request thereby committing a criminal offence and bringing the university into disrepute and merely deleting emails to make sure that they cannot be obtained if an FOI request is made. That is a destination that many people might find troubling.

The University of East Anglia commissioned the Russell Inquiry; the university paid for the inquiry;  the university determined the terms of reference of the inquiry. According to the press release posted on the university website when this so called ‘independent’ inquiry was announced:

The Independent Review will investigate the key allegations that arose from a series of hacked e-mails from CRU.

There can be no doubt that the apparent intention to delete emails, and inciting others  involved in the IPCC process to do likewise, was a ‘key allegation’ once the Climategate emails became public. So why has neither the VIce-Chancellor of the university nor the inquiry that he commissioned determined whether emails were in fact deleted? And why is this question so important?

The email from Jones concerning the deletions is among the most notorious in the Climategate files. It has been extensively referred to in the main steam media as well as the blogosphere and it has come to symbolise the seriousness of the Climategate revelations. Suspicion about the deletion of emails has probably done as much to harm the reputations of the CRU, the UEA and the IPCC as any other aspect of this scandal. So why does that very important paragraph in the report, quoted above, qualify the finding about email deletion with ‘might’, and then fail to explain this uncertainty? How could Sir Muir and his panel possibly think that they would fulfil the expectations of those who were told that this was an independent inquiry when they seem unwilling to address adequately one of the most serious allegations made against the CRU scientists?

This matter is a very important plank on which the credibility of the Russell Inquiry, and the UEA as a research institution, rests. If emails were deleted then that opens up a number of issues that need to be resolved if any kind of confidence in the university and the research it has undertaken is to be restored.

If emails were in fact deleted, then what made them so sensitive? What was Jones motivation? If these emails were deleted, are there other instances of deletions that we do not know about. Why is this matter not fully explained and considered in the report? How can anyone have confidence that there are not, even now, more compromising emails on the UEA server that have yet to come to light either in the Climategate emails or in the course of the Russell Inquiry?

The email quoted at the beginning of this post is clear and unambiguous. The fact that Jones felt that he could write to Mann in these terms, with the expectation that his request for emails to be deleted would be shared with others, suggests that he considered what he was doing would be acceptable among his peers. If deletions were made, then surely considering the motivation of the scientists involved and what this might tell us about the ethical standards within the climate science community, was an inescapable duty of the Russell Inquiry. But the Russell Inquiry has failed even to determine whether emails were deleted.

Even if Sir Muir Russell’s panel made a conscientious attempt to discover what happened, but were unable to do so, then that surely is material to their deliberations and should be clearly set out in the report. Merely to say that there is ‘evidence that e-mails might have been deleted’ is to state only what is obvious to anyone who has read the email from Jones to Mann.

Until this matter has been fully investigated, and explained, it is futile to claim that either the ‘rigour and honesty’ of the scientists at CRU is ‘beyond doubt’, or that a proper inquiry into their conduct has taken place.

Harmless Sky, 10 July 2010

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