More on the Heartland Document Leak

I have a substantive post on the Heartland thing that I plan to write shortly, but in the meantime here’s another massive roundup of the latest stuff I’ve been reading, including some quoting of myself from various blogs’ comments.

Climate stuff unrelated to Heartland:

  • Understanding the Global Warming Debate (Warren Meyer in his Forbes blog) shcb pointed this out in the comments to a previous item, and I have to admit: I liked it. It was lucid, informative, and even if I don’t necessarily buy into all the conclusions he comes to, I appreciated his approach. So thanks, shcb. I learned something.
  • Concerned Scientists Reply on Global Warming (Wall Street Journal) This is the response of the original group of 16 scientists who had the contrarian op-ed in the WSJ, responding to some of the letters to the editor questioning their more-dubious statements. Definitely worth reading, and in the alternate universe in which I am not consumed with the Heartland strategy memo I would totally have things to say about their graph purporting to show IPCC projections versus actual temperature rise.
  • Bickmore on the WSJ response (Barry Bickmore writing at RealClimate) Fortunately, Barry Bickmore had time to say some of the things I would have said about the graph in the WSJ, along with a bunch of other things.

Mainstream media (and media-related) stories:

Information from Heartland itself:

  • Heartland president details curriculum questioning climate science (Politico) News item about a video interview Joseph Bast (Heartland’s president) did with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal about the education program revelations in the document leak. Besides making some statements that I have a hard time interpreting as anything but bald-faced lies, Bast says a bunch of more-reasonable stuff. He also accuses Peter Gleick directly of forging the strategy memo. Here’s the video itself: The Purloined Climate Papers.
  • Heartland Institute Releases Peter Gleick Emails Detailing Fraud, Identity Theft (Heartland press release)
  • (Heartland) A website that includes redacted versions of the emails in which Gleick impersonated the Heartland board member in order to obtain the legitimate documents. Interesting stuff, and helps put a specific timeline in place for at least some of the events. Interestingly, the phishing operation by Gleick came in the wake of an email exchange in which Heartland unsuccessfully solicited Gleick’s participation in a debate at their anniversary benefit dinner.


  • Peter Gleick: Climate Hero? (Marc Gunther) Excellent summary of the situation, including what I think was a very insightful take on the problem represented by those Gleick supporters who are going overboard in his defense. (More on that in the aforementioned upcoming post.)

From a comment I put on Gunther’s blog post:

Can you elaborate on why you believe Gleick’s account of the events strains credulity? I’ve been intrigued by the “honeypot” theory from the beginning of this story; the first thing I thought when I heard Heartland’s response to the leak (in which they focused their outrage on the forged “2012 strategy memo”) was, “Oh, just like the Killian documents” (those being the forged documents allegedly showing George W. Bush malfeasance in his National Guard days, the publication of which ended the career of Dan Rather). I dismissed the thought just as quickly, though, because it didn’t seem to make sense: I could see the forged strategy memo being leaked by a Heartland-connected trickster in order to attack the recipient for using a forged document when it became public, but I couldn’t see them also including the legitimate documents, which really were embarrassing and probably made their donors quite unhappy.

When Gleick made his confession the following week, though, it suddenly became a viable theory again, because it matched up nicely with his version of events: The anonymous source who supplied him the forged memo did not anticipate that Gleick would have been enterprising enough to obtain the legitimate documents via his phishing attempt. Of course, given that Gleick was no doubt feeling the heat by this point, it could be that his version of events fitting nicely with the honeypot theory is just another layer of deception, in which he attempts to construct a plausible villain to deflect (some) culpability from himself.

Your other comments, I think, were spot on. Thanks for being a beacon of reason in the midst of what is becoming quite the stormy sea of its opposite.

Gunther replied via email with a thoughtful response, but since he didn’t choose to make it publicly I’ll keep it private.

Kloor gave a good summary and list of links relating to the strategy memo, and ended with this:

For those inclined to take Gleick at his word–that the memo was mailed to him by a Heartland insider–what do you make of Otto’s musing about about it being a Heartland set-up? Lastly, what would it take for Gleick himself to end all this speculation?

I responded in the lengthy comment thread with this:

I agree that the “Gleick’s fingerprints are all over the strategy memo” meme has been overstated by some. People taking Heartland’s side in this have been quick to dismiss the “honeypot” scenario out of hand as preposterous. But if Gleick had received the memo in the mail as he said, and if it had been forged by someone with access to the internal Heartland documents who was carrying out a scam targeting Gleick, then the facts that the memo contained errors (making it easily deniable as a forgery by Heartland) and Gleick-esque “fingerprints” (making Gleick easily “discoverable” as the source) would be unremarkable. Those would be exactly the things that such an attacker would want to include in the forged memo.

I’m not saying that exonerates Gleick. That would be as ludicrous as those currently arguing that the strategy memo is, in fact, legitimate. All I’m saying is that given that the memo is a forgery, either explanation (it was forged by Gleick to “sex up” the release of the phished documents, or it was forged by someone with access to internal Heartland documents who was targeting Gleick) can account for the characteristics of the memo more or less equally.

For Gleick to end this speculation would take one of two things: confess to being the forger, or produce compelling evidence to support his version of the timeline, in which he received the forged memo before he obtained the phished documents from Heartland.

See also BobN’s comment, which includes this:

Now, on the final theory of it being some sort of “honeypot” or “false flag” ploy to sucker Gleick, I first thought such an idea was out-of-hand crazy, but upon further reflection don’t think it can be fully ruled out. Now I don’t think such a ploy would have been done with the knowledge or approval of Heartland (including Joe Bast), but could have been done by an individual within Heartland.

If we accept Gleick’s statement that he received the document via mail before he went phishing for the board documents and that he made no alterations to the document, then it had to have been written by someone with access to drafts of the board documents. Now let say you’re a blogger that has been in a bit of back and forth with Gleick so you know his hot button issues, and are communication professional that can pick out writing styles and idiosyncrasies. You think “Let me gin up a fake document sure to get Gleick riled up and see if I can get him to release it to the press”, with the idea that Heartland will then be able claim it is a fake document, perhaps even proving it by releasing appropriately-redacted versions of the real documents and making Gleick look bad. But, unexpectedly, Gleick doesn’t just release the fake document, he goes one better and fraudulently obtains the real documents and releases the whole thing, not only making himself look bad, but basically putting his entire career and credibility at risk. Definitely seems somewhat far-fetched, but I believe that it is at least plausible. Let’s face it there are just so many things about this whole affair that are hard to explain logically.

My first comment on Kate’s post (slightly edited to clean up some mistakes and poor word choices in the original):

Given the current climate (hah! pun!) surrounding this issue, it’s probably worthwhile for me to preface what I’m about to say with the following: 1) I accept the scientific consensus on climate change, 2) I’m a regular reader of your blog and a fan of most of what you have to say on the subject, and 3) I think the Heartland Institute is populated by ideologues with a demonstrated willingness to lie in the service of their agenda, which I think is a misguided and dangerous one.

With all that said, I think you should take a closer look at a few aspects of the position you’ve taken in this post.

First, you appear to be accepting as factual Peter Gleick’s account of his own actions. Under the circumstances, more skepticism might be warranted. He’s acknowledged behaving unethically (at least) in impersonating a Heartland board member in order to obtain their internal materials, then releasing those materials anonymously. He faces the possibility of criminal and/or civil legal jeopardy as a result, and is presumably receiving skilled advice on public relations and the crafting of his public statements in order to achieve the strongest possible legal position going forward. Given that, I think it’s worth treating his account of those aspects of the situation that cannot be independently verified as being at best provisionally true.

Second, I’m very dubious about the claim coming from DeMelle and Littlemore at DeSmogBlog that the “2012 Strategy Memo” is authentic. A lot of people have looked closely at that document, and while there is predictable divergence in the ways that supporters and detractors of Heartland tend to view it, I think the claim that the document is an actual internal Heartland document created for the purpose of planning their strategy for addressing climate change is very hard to support. I recommend the comments written about the document by Megan McArdle last week as a starting point, but in summary, the document has a number of factual errors, some odd phrasings, and an odd focus on Gleick himself and his role at Forbes, all of which are very hard to reconcile with the document being what it purports to be.

DeMelle and Littlemore’s analysis does show something that I think is obvious: Whoever created the document had access to the real Heartland documents that accompanied it in the leak, since there are many correspondences, and whole passages copied word for word, that are in both. But I think the claim by Heartland that the 2012 strategy memo is in some sense a fake is very likely to be true.

If the strategy memo is a forgery, and was created by someone who had access to the real internal Heartland documents, why was it created, and by whom? There are two possible explanations that I think can account for the known facts adequately:

1) The strategy document was forged by Gleick after he received the legitimate documents via his phishing attack on Heartland. He created it in order to have a more dramatic, quotable version of Heartland saying the kinds of things that would be damaging to their reputation, and that would enhance his own. In effect, he “sexed up” the document release.

2) The strategy document was forged by someone connected with Heartland with the specific intent of leaking it to Gleick. The hope was that Gleick would believe the document was genuine, and would either release it openly or leak it anonymously. Once that had happened, Heartland could expose it as a forgery (pointing to the subtle but significant factual errors it contains) and accuse Gleick himself of being its author (based on their knowledge that he had, in fact, been the recipient, and with the added support of the Gleick-specific information included in the document). Note that in this scenario it is not necessary for the Heartland-connected trickster to have intended that Gleick would obtain the legitimate documents via his phishing attempt. I think it very unlikely that the forger would have done that. I assume that the plan, if there was one, was limited to leaking the strategy memo to Gleick.

If Gleick has compelling evidence to support his stated version of the timeline, in which he received the strategy memo first, and only obtained the phished documents later, I would conclude that scenario #2 is probably the truth. If he can’t produce that evidence, I think either scenario is equally likely.

Aside from those two things (your assumption that Gleick’s account is true, and your endorsement of the idea that the strategy memo is authentic), I found your post interesting and informative. Thanks for posting it.

A user named Miken commented later:

I think it is more likely that Gleick is lying, and he is the author of the fake memo.

This prompted the following comment from me (again, slightly edited to clean up some mistakes):

Gleick-as-forger certainly has fewer moving parts than Gleick-as-victim, and might be preferable for that reason alone, all else being equal. But I’m bothered by a few things.

To believe Gleick-as-forger, we need to believe that Gleick, having obtained the real documents, would have thought it was a good idea to forge the strategy memo and release it along with them. He would have to have realized that Heartland would immediately know the strategy memo was fake, and would prominently denounce it as such, shifting the media narrative in the way that has actually happened. Would he have considered that a worthwhile risk? Also, with the forged memo’s prominent mention of Gleick, he would have been planting a neon-sign piece of evidence pointing directly at himself as possibly being connected with the leak. Wouldn’t that have seemed like a bad idea to him? I can’t know what would have been going through his head at that point, but to the extent I try to imagine how I would behave in those circumstances, planting evidence that mentioned me specifically would have been the last thing I would have wanted to do.

In the Gleick-as-victim scenario, these particular problems go away (though other problems take their place). He included the forged strategy memo in the release because he believed, based on the confirming facts in the phished documents, that it was legitimate. We still have to believe that Gleick overlooked those aspects of the strategy memo that quickly raised questions as to its authenticity when it was made public. But I have an easier time accepting that than accepting that he would have knowingly run the risk of forging the document and including it in the release.

There’s another, more subtle problem that I have with the Gleick-as-forger scenario. It doesn’t seem to fit the little I know of Gleick’s personality (though granted, even the behavior he’s admitted seems shockingly out of character, as others who know him have said). To believe Gleick-as-forger, we need to believe that he decided, on his own and without provocation (other than Heartland’s history of known activities), to impersonate a Heartland board member, obtain their internal documents, forge a sexier version of the information contained in them, and leak all that anonymously to the public. That doesn’t sound like what a scientist would do. I know that what he’s admitted to doesn’t sound like what a scientist would do, either, but it’s not nearly as over-the-top scheming and dishonest as this.

Now consider the Gleick-as-victim scenario: He is taken out of his normal day-to-day habits by the receipt of the forged memo. What does he think? He is dubious about its authenticity, but if legitimate it is truly shocking information that really needs to be made public. But how can he corroborate it? He frets, tries to weigh the options in his mind. Under the circumstances, would attempting to obtain confirming documents from Heartland be justified? He agonizes, and eventually concludes that yes, it is. So he does that, and succeeds in obtaining the real documents. He goes through them, looking for corroboration. And it’s there! Numerous specific pieces of information in the strategy memo are present in the legitimate documents. Oh my God! The strategy memo is real!

In his excitement he overlooks the discrepancies, and doesn’t stop to consider the possibility that he’s being conned. He is, after all, someone who really isn’t experienced with those sorts of political dirty tricks. He’s naive. He’s flustered. He’s out of his comfort zone. And he decides that since he has this smoking gun, he really should release it. So he does.

For me to believe Gleick-as-forger, I have to believe Gleick was stupid. For me to believe Gleick-as-victim, I only have to believe he was naive and showed bad judgement under pressure. The latter is more consistent with my (possibly stereotyped) notions of how a prominent scientist might behave in these circumstances.

Granted, Gleick-as-victim requires a Heartland-connected operative willing to initiate a fairly elaborate dirty trick. Maybe it’s because I’m cynical and have been kind of a collector of political dirty tricks like this for a number of years, but that sounds credible to me. And maybe it’s due to my stereotyped view of the kind of people associated with Heartland, but again, they seem to me like the kind of people who might include someone who would come up with a plan like that.

Again, Gleick-as-forger has fewer moving parts, and I need to consider that my own sympathies tend to be with Gleick, rather than Heartland, which distorts my own judgement in his favor. So that’s how I come up with my current sense that either scenario is equally likely. Your mileage (obviously) will vary.

Sorry to ramble on. I’ve been thinking about this too much, probably. But it’s the kind of thing I find interesting.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.