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A Flagrant Disregard for Scientific Expertise

The Washington Post reveals that close Bush and Cheney family friend blocked key global health report from the surgeon general.

Americans were given further evidence this weekend that we may not be seeing the end of the Bush administration’s flagrant disregard of scientific expertise for the sake of promoting its own agenda any time soon.

Former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona told representatives at a committee hearing earlier this month that the report, “Call to Action on Global Health,” was a prime example of the administration’s efforts to alter, abridge, or outright muzzle scientific findings it found politically inconvenient. The Washington Post obtained a copy of this report and revealed on Sunday that the chief censor was William R. Steiger, head of the office of Global Health Affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services and close family friend of both Dick Cheney and George W. Bush.

Carmona had commissioned the report in 2005. An early draft of the report received largely positive reviews from global health experts inside and outside the government. And Carmona was expected to release the full report in June 2005 at a global health summit in Philadelphia.

Yet Steiger kept the report tied up due to “sloppy work, poor analysis, and lack of scientific rigor.” A particularly ironic claim considering that Steiger’s own global health office provided the funding and staff to gather the wide array of experts who compiled the report. Although to be fair, even though Steiger denied that it was not “political considerations” that delayed the report, he did confirm that he and Carmona clashed over the issue of whether the report should promote the administration’s policies in order to “at least let Americans know what their generosity is already doing to help solve those challenges.”

The report did address some Bush administration priorities like AIDS treatment and research. But it was other issues, such ratifying the international tobacco treaty and making global health part of U.S. foreign policy that did not sit well with the administration. The 65-page draft of the report states, “The hunger, disease, and death resulting from poor food and nutrition create social and political instability.” The report also advises the administration to spend more money on global health improvements since “the environmental conditions that poison our water and contaminate our air are not contained within national boundaries.

Four sources, including Richard Walling, a former career official in the HHS global health office, attested that Carmona tried to forge a compromise with Steiger. Carmona suggested that the global health report be released in conjunction with a second report that was more to Steiger’s liking. But Steiger remained intransigent and continued to block the report.

So who is this Steiger, anyway? Well, for one thing, he is the godson of George H.W. Bush. He is the son of a moderate Republican former congressman from Wisconsin who once took on Dick Cheney as an intern. And Steiger’s mother was appointed to the Federal Trade Commission by Bush senior. So it’s safe to say that loyalty to the Bush party line probably has something to do with the whole incident.

Of course, surgeons general have always been subject to political pressure. Carmona referred in his testimony to the mentoring he received from previous surgeons general about dealing with such pressure. Carmona states, “They said that they had all been challenged and had to fight political battles in order to do their job as ‘the doctor of the nation.’ But each agreed that never had they seen Washington, DC so partisan or a new Surgeon General so politically challenged and marginalized as during my tenure.”

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