Whopper of the Week

Christie Whitman: The perils of premature assurance.

“Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of
New York and Washington, D.C., that their air is safe to breath[e] and their water is safe to drink.”

Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman, as quoted in an EPA press release issued on Sept. 18, 2001

“EPA did not have monitoring data to support reassurances made in press releases up to September 18 because it lacked monitoring data for several contaminants, particularly PCBs, particulate matter, dioxin, and PAHs.


“According to a draft evaluation entitled Exposure and Human Health Evaluationof Airborne Pollution From the World Trade Center Disaster, by EPA’s Office of Research and Development, that Office was not able to make health risk evaluations for exposures in the first couple of days because of the lack of monitoring data. For several pollutants of concern, sampling did not begin until September 16, and in many cases the results were not known until after the September 18 press release was issued. EPA was not able to obtain samples and monitor air due to difficulties in access and security, power supply sources, equipment availability, and analytical capacity. As a result, data available before September 18 for making conclusions about air quality for pollutants other than asbestos was limited.”


EPA’s Response to the World Trade Center Collapse: Challenges, Successes, and Areas for Improvement, a report issued by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General, Aug. 21, 2003

Q: How well did the EPA do in leveling with the people of New York about the safety of the air?

A: Our concern in our report, which is that EPA did not have all the information it needed to make broad statements about the safety of the air and water. But the most glaring issue we’ve identified was a September 18th press release where EPA said that the air was generally safe and the water was safe. Early on, it was difficult for EPA to even have access to the WorldTradeCenter site to do the kind of monitoring that it would want to do in order to make environmental assessments.



Q: Was [the] White House … changing the tone of EPA’s statements to the public? 

A: The press releases were part of a collaborative process. The agency and all aspects of the federal government wanted to speak with one voice. …

Q: And the one voice was dictated, to some extent, by the White House?

A: That’s what our work shows.


Q: You must have had lengthy discussions with the White House about your report?

A: We did not discuss our report with the White House. We wanted to interview the [White House Council of Environmental Quality] employee that was involved in the collaborative process. We were never able to get access to that person to interview that person. So the only information we have on CEQ’s involvement comes from EPA employees.


Q: So the White House refused even to talk to you?

A: Council of Environmental Quality did not talk to us. And we were contacted by White House counsel that said that we weren’t going to have that interview.


Q: Was it misleading for EPA to tell the people of New York that their air was safe to breathe when they didn’t have all the tests in yet?

A: Yes. We think that people rely on EPA to give it accurate, complete information about environmental and human health aspects of its program.

Q: What troubles you most about what you saw in this?

A: I was surprised, because EPA historically does give complete information.”

EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley, in an interview conducted by Lisa Myers of NBC News, Sept. 2, 2003


Discussion. There is no solid evidence that the premature message forced on the EPA by the White House harmed anyone’s health. But it’s useful to know, for the next big crisis, that any reassurance this administration provides the public will be aimed not at telling the truth but at preventing panic in the financial markets and elsewhere. In this instance, the White House pursued its bluffing strategy to the point of stonewalling, well after the fact, the inspector general of its own EPA! Another recent example of crisis bluffing was the response to the Aug. 14 blackout, in which the government assured the public that the cause was not a terrorist attack well before it had any idea that this was so. In the Aug. 25 Newsweek, Michael Hirsh and Daniel Klaidman reported that federal investigators ruled out terrorist causes within 45 minutes, even though the CIA was not yet convinced. (It had some evidence that al-Qaida planned to attack the power grid.) What the Bush administration has perhaps not thought through is that if its next reassuring response to a crisis lacks credibility, the result could be unnecessary panic.


Got a whopper? Send it to To be considered, an entry must be an unambiguously false statement paired with an unambiguous refutation, and both must be derived from some appropriately reliable public source. Preference will be given to newspapers and other documents that Chatterbox can link to online.


Whopper Archive:
Aug. 29, 2003: Donald Rumsfeld
Aug. 22, 2003: Arianna Huffington
Aug. 8, 2003: Howard Dean
July 25, 2003: Condoleezza Rice
July 18, 2003: President Bush
July 10, 2003: Donald Rumsfeld
June 27, 2003: Remembering Strom
June 20, 2003: Billy Bulger
May 30, 2003: Ari Fleischer
May 23, 2003: Donald Rumsfeld
May 19, 2003: Un-Whopper: Ari Fleischer Tells Truth!
May 2, 2003: Peggy Cooper Cafritz
April 17, 2003: Eason Jordan
March 7, 2003: John Kerry
Feb. 28, 2003: Ari Fleischer
Feb. 14, 2003: Bill O’Reilly
Feb. 7, 2003: Saddam Hussein
Jan. 31, 2003: Karl Rove
Jan. 23, 2003: Bill Frist
Jan. 17, 2003: Naji Sabri
Jan. 10, 2003: Rod Paige

(Click here  to access the Whopper Archive for 2002 and here  to access the Whopper Archive for 2001.)