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Image: Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg

'Yikes, This Is Bad Press': Internal Emails Show Federal Employees Asking Why a Climate Scientist's Meeting With Mark Zuckerberg Was Canceled

Sarah Emerson

Sarah Emerson

New unpublished documents from the US Geological Survey reveal the agency had no role in squashed meeting between its climate scientist at the Facebook CEO.

Image: Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg

New internal emails from the Interior Department (DOI) reveal more details about Mark Zuckerberg's mysteriously cancelled meeting with a federal climate scientist.

The rendezvous between the Facebook CEO and US Geological Survey (USGS) scientist Dan Fagre—a research ecologist who studies glacier melt—was supposed to happen at Glacier National Park on June 15, 2017. A week before the event, Fagre was abruptly uninvited from the tour.

Motherboard reported last month that DOI officials, some appointed under the Trump administration, had long disapproved of the meeting, and attempted to "manage the talking point" of Fagre's participation. The more than 300 hundred pages of USGS and National Park Service (NPS) documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, showed staff trying to explain why Zuckerberg was not allowed to speak with Fagre. Many had no idea why he had been removed.

Today, Motherboard received additional USGS records pertaining to the incident. A significant portion of these documents contain emails already included in the other two dispatches.

However, new emails explicitly state that USGS was not responsible for pulling Fagre from the tour, confirming reports that it was not accountable.

"Yikes! This is bad press. Do you think it was our communications folks or NPS's that would not let this guy talk," wrote Eugene Schweig, a USGS geologist, to USGS public affairs specialist Heidi Koontz in July.

"Don't think we had anything to do with it other than Fagre," Koontz responded.

Screenshot from USGS FOIA documents.

Previously, DOI officials were vague about who dismissed Fagre that day. Heather Swift, who served on President Trump's Interior Beachhead Team, and was later made Press Secretary there, issued the following statement:

Screenshot from USGS FOIA documents.

The statement implies that Fagre's termination was the result of inappropriately allocated government resources. NPS sources told the Washington Post, however, that the entire event was unwanted to begin with, and that employees were, under no circumstances, to publicize it on social media.

We now know definitively that USGS had nothing to do with Fagre's dismissal.

"USGS did not make the decision," wrote Catherine Puckett, USGS Deputy Press Officer, to other USGS staff after Zuckerberg's visit.

Screenshot from USGS FOIA documents.

But emails continue to suggest that USGS was excited about Fagre's meeting with Zuckerberg. It would have been a prime opportunity to showcase the agency's climate research.

"Mark provides a global audience with many eyes and ears with everything he does… I think we really need to take advantage of the visit as best we can," Scott Horvath, social media lead at USGS, wrote to a team of agency employees in June.

At the time, USGS considered broadcasting the tour on Facebook Live, which it would then ask Facebook to share on its own page.

Screenshot from USGS FOIA documents.

It's unclear if Horvath knew, however, that NPS Acting Director Michael Reynolds, was intent on squashing any publicity around Zuckerberg's visit. In an email previously obtained by Motherboard, Reynolds wrote to a team of senior DOI and NPS officials:

"NPS does not intend to issue any press release or participate in any press event/conference associated with this visit… NPS does not intend to post anything about this visit on our public-facing website, nor to post to the park's Facebook page."

Still, no emails state why, exactly, Fagre was uninvited.

As we reported last month, officials like Swift set up phone calls with lower-level staff to discuss Fagre's situation. Phone calls are not subject to FOIA, so we do not know whether key conversations regarding motive and direction were had.

Swift did not return any of Motherboard's requests for comment. Motherboard has submitted an identical FOIA request to DOI, and will publish those documents when they're made available.