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Climategate:The smoking gun

March 12th, 2010 jquiggin

In writing my previous post on the “Climategate” break-in to the University of East Anglia computer system , I remained unclear about who was actually responsible for the break-in theft of the emails, which were then selectively quoted to promote a bogus allegation of scientific fraud. It seems unlikely at this point that the hacker/leaker wll be identified, so as far as criminal liability is concerned, we will probably never know.

Looking over the evidence that is now available, however, I think there is enough to point to Steven McIntyre as the person (apart of course from the actual hacker/leaker) who bears primary moral responsibility for the crime.

Here’s the timeline of key events

By July 2009, CRU had advised McIntyre that climate data used in their work was available from the original sources, but that they couldn’t release it because some sources had supplied it under confidentiality agreements.

24 July 2009: McIntyre organizes a spam FOI campaign against CRU, asking his supporters to send requests nominating five countries whose data they wanted of the form:

I hereby make a EIR/FOI request in respect to any confidentiality agreements)restricting transmission of CRUTEM data to non-academics involing(sic) the following countries: [insert 5 or so countries that are different from ones already requested]

(unsurprisingly, his supporters ignored the request to stick to new countries, and sent multiples of the same request). In the end, CRU got over 100 FOI requests, all essentially identical, but different enough to pose a huge burden.

25 July 2009: The next day McIntyre announced that he had got a mass of CRU data, essentially all that sought in the harassment campaign, in a post headed “a mole”. McIntyre stated in comments that he had received the data from a person in the UK. In any case, it is clear that his harassment campaign was going hand in hand with attempts to gain unauthorised access to CRU computers, and did not stop when its supposed goal was realised.

Over the weekend beginning Friday 13 November, someone located and copied files (apparently associated with the CRU response to this effort, although this is unclear) from a back-up server at the university’s Climatic Research Unit, and attempted to load it on to the RealClimate site under the name FOIA.zip (the files were in a directory called FOI2009). That attempt failed and the files were then widely circulated to anti-science sites. It’s unclear whether the extraction of the file required sophisticated hacking, simple illegal entry to a poorly protected site, or McIntyre’s “mole”. What is clear, as this report notes is that the name FOi2009 indicates that someone associated with the campaign was responsible. As the report says

An abbreviation often used for the US Freedom of Information Act, it suggests again that the leaker was familiar with the attempts by US bloggers and others to get release of tree ring and similar data.


These files included large numbers of emails, selective quotation of which was the primary focus of the subsequent bogus scandal. Whatever claims might be made about access to data, there is no justification for stealing and publishing other peoples’ mail. Everyone who passed on or made use of the stolen emails was guilty of an offence against normal standards of behavior.

Having been advised of the stolen emails, McIntyre linked to them and played a prominent role in disseminating dishonest and misleading claims about their contents, focusing on the phrases “trick” and “hide the decline” which were used to suggest a conspiracy to commit scientific fraud. In fact, as the U Penn investigation found, these claims were baseless. “Trick” referred to a clever way of combining data, and the “decline” was not a decline in global temperatures but a well-known problematic feature of tree ring data.

So, to sum up, McIntyre, having earlier obtained information from the CRU file system by means he declined to reveal, linked to the stolen emails shortly after the theft and made dishonest and defamatory use of the stolen information. The excuse that he was not personally involved in the hack/leak, but merely benefited from the proceeds is essentially irrelevant in moral terms.

What can we learn from this? The first point is that what has been presented as an exercise in a quest for transparency is in fact a standard piece of rightwing harassment and intimidation of scientists, along the lines of the Data Quality Act.

The second is that those who accepted McIntyre’s self-presentation as an honest seeker after truth and the CRU scientists as secretive obstructionists have been suckered. That includes the Institute of Physics, at least some people in the British FOI office and, unfortunately, George Monbiot. Monbiot at least is clearly acting in good faith, and the FOI people presumably didn’t realise they were being played. The story with the Institute of Physics is much murkier, an irony not lost on Tim Lambert.

Note: I’ve updated this to correct some errors. In particular, I mistakenly thought the name FOIA.zip had been assigned to the files by UEA, rather than by the hacker/leaker. Also, it’s been pointed out in comments that the multiple emails referred to confidentiality agreements about data rather than data per se. And I’ve emphasized the point that we don’t know and will probably never know who actually stole or leaked the emails. That’s a question for the police. McIntyre’s responsibility, as I said, is moral.

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