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NOAA's chief scientist to probe agency's defense of Trump's Dorian claims amid backlash from forecasters

"This intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors ... or simply put, political," said NOAA's Craig McLean.
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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's acting chief scientist said that he would investigate why the agency backed President Donald Trump's claims about Hurricane Dorian hitting Alabama over its own forecasters.

In an internal email obtained by NBC News, NOAA's Craig McLean wrote Sunday that an unsigned Friday statement issued by the agency in defense of Trump "inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the [National Weather Service] forecaster." The Friday statement referred to a tweet from National Weather Service's Birmingham, Alabama office last weekend rebutting the president, who had claimed earlier in the day that Alabama was in the path of the storm.

"My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political," McLean wrote. "Our NOAA Scientific Integrity Policy and Code of Scientific Conduct make clear that all NOAA employees shall approach all scientific activities with honesty, objectively, and completely, without allegiance to individuals, organizations, or ideology."

He called the content of the release "very concerning as it compromises the ability of NOAA to convey life-saving information necessary to avoid substantial and specific danger to public health and safety."

"If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster's warnings and products, that specific danger arises," he continued. "You know that the value of our science is in the complexity of our understanding, our ability to convey that understanding to a wide audience of users of this information, and to establish and sustain the public trust in the truth and legitimacy of that information. Unfortunately, the press release of last Friday violated this trust and violated NOAA's policies of scientific integrity."

McLean said he is "pursuing the potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity," adding, "I have a responsibility to pursue these truths."

The email was first reported by The Washington Post.

NOAA's Friday statement caused an uproar in the weather community. The unsigned statement defended Trump's claims that the hurricane would affect Alabama, adding that NWS Birmingham was wrong to speak "in absolute terms" regarding its tweet insisting Alabama was not at risk. According to the New York Times, the letter is also being reviewed by the inspector general for the Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA.

The kerfuffle over Trump's Alabama remarks has now gone on for more than a week, well after the storm devastated the Bahamas and caused major damage in the Carolinas. It began with Trump tweeting on Sept. 1 that Alabama "would most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated."

At that time, the southeastern corner of Alabama stood at a minuscule risk of receiving tropical storm force winds in excess of 39 miles per hour. But the state was not in the National Hurricane Center's projected path for the storm or its "cone of uncertainty," which by that point showed the hurricane moving up the East Coast.

About 20 minutes after Trump's tweet, NWS Birmingham tweeted: "Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian" because the storm "will remain too far east."

Trump doubled down later that day, twice telling reporters that the storm was threatening Alabama. Then, on Wednesday, Trump displayed an apparently doctored map in the Oval Office that showed Alabama — circled in black marker that looked to be from a Sharpie — to be within Dorian's path.

Trump would lament coverage of his Alabama remarks in the days to come, tweeting that the coverage was meant to "demean" him.

The New York Times on Monday reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire top employees at the NOAA over the Birmingham office's statement, according to three people familiar with the discussion. According to the Times, that threat led to NOAA's statement on Friday backing up the president's claims. A Commerce Department spokesperson called the Times' report "false."

The Friday statement was met with derision from forecasters and industry leaders. Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, the union that represents NWS forecasters, blasted the statement in a Friday tweet, calling it "disgusting and disingenuous."

The head of the National Weather Service on Monday issued a strong defense of the Alabama forecasters who contradicted Trump, earning a round of applause at a National Weather Association event in Birmingham, the Associated Press reported.

NWS Director Louis Uccellini said local forecasters made the right call in tweeting that Alabama faced no threat, saying that they had fielded calls from concerned citizens and only later found out that the president was the source of the misinformation.

Uccellini said those forecasters "did what any office would do to protect the public."

Responding to McLean's email, Scott Smullen, the NOAA's deputy director of communications, said the agency's "senior career leaders are free to express their opinions about matters of agency operations and science."

"The agency will not be providing further official comment, and will not speculate on internal reviews," he added.