NASA Worker Proposed Scrubbing Web Site After Columbia Disaster

Just days after the shuttle Columbia (search) disaster, a NASA (search) employee at headquarters proposed scrubbing the agency's safety office Web site to remove outdated or wrong information that could become "chum in the water to reporters and congressmen."

"We wouldn't want to be sucker punched by someone based on something we have posted," employee Wilson Harkins wrote in an e-mail released this week by NASA.

NASA said Thursday that 18 routine documents were added to the Web site since the accident and none was removed. Spokeswoman Melissa Motichek said Harkins was trying to make sure the site was accurate and up-to-date.

"The e-mail speaks for itself," Motichek said.

A former NASA investigator, Joseph Richard Gutheinz, said that in the aftermath of the shuttle accident it was inappropriate for NASA to suggest removing any documents until they were reviewed by investigators.

"Whenever you have an investigation, everything should freeze," said Gutheinz, who worked in NASA's inspector general office for 10 years. "You don't get rid of anything. You have a duty to your country, to the NASA program and the investigation to allow them to see everything you have before you start tossing this stuff."

Harkins' e-mail and other newly disclosed documents describe how NASA was braced for the investigation into the Columbia tragedy. Harkins urged that the agency should review NASA mishap files to answer inevitable questions from "some enterprising newshound or congressional staffer."

"Has anyone done a complete scrub of the Code Q [safety division] Web pages to make sure they are current?" Harkins wrote in a Feb. 6 e-mail, five days after Columbia's breakup killed its crew. "Out-of-date or erroneous information is like chum in the water to reporters and congressmen."

Harkins was on vacation Thursday and did not return messages left at his home and office. The recipient of the e-mail, manager John Lemke, has retired and did not return a message left at his home in Virginia.

The e-mail emerges as NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe (search) promises that his agency will radically change its culture in response to a stinging investigative report that partly blames the agency's bureaucracy for the shuttle's demise.

Columbia investigators have publicly praised NASA for its cooperation, and one outside public relations executive said it is common for large organizations in the midst of crisis to make every effort to provide consistent and accurate information.

"That particular communique is fairly raw, there's nothing sugar-coated there," said Steve O'Keeffe, president of the O'Keeffe & Co. public relations firm in McLean, Va. "It's every communications department's objective to manage the perception of the organization as best as possible. Exactly these kinds of documents exist in corporate America everywhere."

Another expert, a management professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, said it was important for organizations during a crisis to preserve all documents -- even incorrect or outdated ones -- to help determine events that might have led to the crisis. But he said Harkins' e-mail didn't seem inappropriate.

"It does not communicate to me there is something inappropriate or illicit being argued here," said Michael Useem, Wharton's director at the Center for Leadership and Change Management.

NASA disclosed Harkins' e-mail under the Freedom of Information Act among 667 pages of documents on the eve of the release of the final report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. NASA disclosed other e-mails involving the safety office two weeks earlier.

Other newly released documents included e-mail from Peter J. Rutledge, the director for NASA's enterprise safety and mission assurance division, instructing all employees to seek approval from managers before sending any new materials to shuttle investigators, "so that we will have a complete record of what goes out."

Motichek said Rutledge's instructions were "an effort to keep track of what the office was producing and to make sure there was no contradictory information." She said Rutledge and another senior safety executive did not deny any request to send materials to shuttle investigators.

O'Keefe said earlier this week there was "nary a hint" that the agency had sought to influence the outcome of the shuttle inquiry.

"What we wanted was an unvarnished, straightforward assessment from them, and we got that," O'Keefe said.

Other documents include suggested responses for managers, including O'Keefe, to questions that NASA anticipated from investigators and congressional oversight committees, as well as copies of forwarded news articles about the accident investigation.

One e-mail, marked "HOT HOT HOT," cautioned NASA employees that O'Keefe "will be playing Double Jeopardy" with lawmakers in an upcoming joint congressional hearing days later.