Ex-Officials Tell of Conflict Over Science and Politics

July 12, 2007

From New York Times online

By GARDINER HARRIS and ROBERT PEAR

Published: July 12, 2007

WASHINGTON, July 11 — A day after former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona told Congress that top Bush administration officials had interfered with his public health mission for political reasons, the hunt for those suspected of undermining Dr. Carmona was in full swing on Capitol Hill.

Dr. Carmona refused on Tuesday to name those who he said had instructed him to put political considerations over scientific ones. He was traveling Wednesday and did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.

But more than a half-dozen former top health officials said in interviews that the official most likely to have interfered was Dr. Cristina V. Beato, a former deputy assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary for health who was Dr. Carmona’s boss from 2003 to 2005 and is now deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization.

In an interview Wednesday, Dr. Beato rejected the suggestion that politics had ever trumped science in the Bush administration.

“That wasn’t my experience,” she said, adding that she was “really sad to hear that he talked that way.”

All the former officials interviewed said Dr. Carmona and Dr. Beato had a difficult relationship.

“They clashed tremendously, both personally and professionally,” said William A. Pierce, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services from 2001 to 2005.

Some tension between the two offices is not uncommon, Mr. Pierce said, because “the surgeon general reports to the assistant secretary for health, but the surgeon general is much better known to the public.” With Dr. Carmona and Dr. Beato, he added, the institutional conflict was compounded by a “personality clash.” Dr. Beato was widely seen within the department as trying to advance conservative agendas, the former officials said.

“Dr. Beato was more ideological and more right-wing, less objective and more political” than Dr. Carmona, said Dr. Philip R. Lee, a former government health official and a founder of the Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California , San Francisco.

Dr. Lee said Dr. Carmona frequently consulted him “when he was particularly frustrated” as surgeon general, adding: “Rich is a straight shooter, but he was naïve about the ways of Washington.”

On Wednesday, Senator Edward M. Kennedy , Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate health committee, sent a letter to the Bush administration asking for records on the interactions of Dr. Carmona with several health officials, including Dr. Beato.

Dr. Beato was nominated as assistant secretary for health, but her nomination was derailed in 2004 after accusations surfaced that she had padded her résumé. In an interview, Dr. Beato said those accusations arose from several misunderstandings and what she described as mostly clerical errors.

She disputed Dr. Carmona’s claim that the government had delayed by years a major report on secondhand smoke and tried to weaken it.

Dr. Beato also rejected Dr. Carmona’s assertion that the department had suppressed his report on global health because he refused to sprinkle it with accolades to President Bush.

Tony Snow , the White House press secretary, said Wednesday of Dr. Carmona’s testimony: “Nobody, as far as I could tell, was muzzling him. But on the other hand, there is certainly nothing scandalous about saying to somebody who was a presidential appointee, ‘You should advocate the president’s policies.’ ”