A Heartland Institute statement raises questions about “climate strategy” memo’s origin

Posted on February 22, 2012


According to Peter Gleick, he was moved to impersonate a Heartland Institute board member by a memo he received in the mail, the details of which he wanted to verify. Since the publication of both the memo and the internal Heartland documents, however, there have been many questions and claims about the source of that “climate strategy” memo, with The Heartland Institute claiming it was fabricated and Heartland’s allies claiming that Gleick must have written it himself. However, one oddly specific paragraph in a recent Heartland statement, written by Heartland communications director Jim Lakely, raises a number of questions about Heartland’s prior claims of innocence with respect to the authorship of the memo.

The paragraph in question is reproduced below:

An internal investigation by The Heartland Institute has confirmed that the “climate strategy” memo was not written by a staff member, did not originate in The Heartland Institute’s offices, and was not one of the stolen documents. We are still waiting for the report of a forensic investigation firm.

This is what Heartland probably wants you to think after you read this paragraph. They want you to believe that an internal investigation cleared everyone associated with the Heartland Institute of having written the climate strategy memo and that it wasn’t sent to Peter Gleick from any of Heartland’s offices, and that an external investigation into the memo’s source is ongoing. And maybe this is exactly what Heartland means. But to paraphrase Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, that paragraph doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means. Let’s look closer at the actual language to understand what it does say.

First, what does The Heartland Institute mean by “staff member?” Heartland wants you to think that it means anyone associated with Heartland – board members, staff, consultants, everyone. But a little looking at the About page on The Heartland Institute’s website may indicate that “staff member” has a very specific meaning at Heartland, instead of the general meaning you might think. If the left sidebar is accurate, then Heartland separates “staff members” from “senior fellows” from “policy advisors” from “board members.” So did a board member or senior fellow write the “climate strategy” memo? Technically, the paragraph has nothing to say on the matter.

Similarly, the paragraph doesn’t address third-party contractors or former employees of Heartland who might have had access to the documents and had an axe to grind against his or her former employer. I emailed Lakely yesterday asking specifically for clarification on the “staff member” question, but he has not yet responded.

Second, what does The Heartland Institute mean by “originate?” According to Merriam-Webster online, “originate” means either “to give rise to; initiate” or “to take or have origin; begin.” More simply, the Heartland statement specifically means that the memo was not created in Heartland’s offices. What it doesn’t mean is “came from,” which is probably what most people will think when the read that paragraph .

Third, why the focus on “The Heartland Institute’s offices?” I don’t know about anyone else, but I work from home and telecommute sometimes, but I don’t consider my home as part of my employer’s offices. Similarly, if I’m reading my work email remotely from a hotel while I’m on travel, I don’t consider my hotel room to be part of my employer’s office either. So the paragraph in question doesn’t really say anything about those possibilities either.

Combined, saying that the memo “did not originate in The Heartland Institute’s offices” means only that the memo was not written in the official offices and physical building(s) of The Heartland Institute.

Fourth, the sentence about the “forensics investigation firm” implies that the Heartland is having their internal investigation validated by an external firm, and that looks good. But simply saying that Heartland is waiting for an external report doesn’t mean that the report is actually on the source of the memo.

Finally, what exactly did the “internal investigation” entail? Was it an in-depth audit involving interviews with employees, searching through fax and copier records, and double-checking email “sent mail” folders? Or was it a cursory email sent out to Heartland employees (or possibly even just the official “staff members”) asking “Hey, did any of you write this memo?” There’s no way to know without Heartland explaining what the investigation actually entailed, and to date they have not done so.

So, with these four observations in mind, let’s look at that paragraph again:

An internal investigation by The Heartland Institute has confirmed that the “climate strategy” memo was not written by a staff member, did not originate in The Heartland Institute’s offices, and was not one of the stolen documents. We are still waiting for the report of a forensic investigation firm.

It’s possible that this paragraph could mean that the memo wasn’t fabricated by anyone working for Heartland, and Heartland did a thorough investigation before deducing that. That’s almost certainly what Lakely and Heartland want you to think it means. But it could also mean something very different.

It could mean Heartland looked deep enough into outgoing emails to verify that the “climate strategy” memo wasn’t included in the batch of documents that were ultimately leaked to ThinkProgress, DeSmogBlog, and others. It could mean that Heartland did no more than email some questions to their official “staff members” and that none of them admitted to having written the memo. It could mean that Heartland consciously chose not to ask anyone other than official staff (most of whom were unlikely to have had access to the memo at all) for reasons of plausible deniability.

It could mean that Heartland learned that a Board member or consultant or irate former employee did write the memo at home or in a hotel but didn’t want the PR blowback that would come with admitting that the memo was authentic. It could mean that the memo’s author claims not to have leaked it, but that Heartland isn’t sure of that and has hired the “forensics investigation firm” to determine if a printout was left on a printer and run polygraph tests on anyone who had access to the memo. And it could mean that, after learning this, Lakely and his PR staff carefully crafted a sentence that was 100% factual and utterly dishonest at the same time.

Just to be clear, I have no inside knowledge of how thorough Heartland’s internal investigation was, where the memo did or did not come from, who wrote it, or where. After all, Lakely didn’t respond to my request for clarification. And I’ll admit that The Heartland Institute’s long history of institutional hypocrisy, deceptive behavior, and dishonesty could have biased me against their possibly benign statement. So I asked S&R’s resident public relations expert, Samuel Smith, to comment on my analysis. He said “The more meticulously crafted the official statement is, the harder I look at it,” and he confirmed my analyses of the possible meanings of “staff member” and “did not originate,” saying of the latter that it meant only that “the first draft was composed off-site, which could be anywhere from a board member’s home office to the Starbucks across the street.”

Smith also wanted to know more about the forensics firm, wondering if they are independent or likely to say whatever their customer wants them to. He was of the opinion that “when you’re that careful about your actual words, it means that you’re trying to keep the reader away from what isn’t being said.” Finally, while Smith couldn’t assume that the author of the paragraph was corrupt, he said “by the time I wade through the rest of the smoke and mirrors in that paragraph I have every reason in the world to be on guard.”

We don’t know who wrote the “climate strategy” memo, when it was written, where it was written, why it was written, or how it came to be mailed by postal service to Peter Gleick. And contrary to The Heartland Institute’s written statements, they have offered no proof that it wasn’t someone associated with The Heartland Institute. Given the oddly specific language in Heartland’s most recent statement about the “climate strategy” memo, it’s safe to say that the memo’s story won’t be finished until we know a great deal more about it’s lineage than we do now.

Image Credit: Climatecrocks.com