You can't handle the truth (if you're Heartland Institute).

When someone grabbed emails and documents from the computers of climate scientists and leaked them to the media in 2009, few organizations were as mirthful as the Heartland Institute, an outfit that has worked for years to spread the gospel of climate-change denial. Although multiple investigations into the scientists’ emails debunked accusations that the researchers had subverted science and distorted data, Heartland and its allies used the so-called “Climategate” memos to tar climate science and bully the media into covering their dubious claims.

Last Monday, when an anonymous source (we now know it to be MacArthur-award-winning scientist and climate activist Peter Gleick) released internal Heartland memos to the press, the group had something else to say entirely.

The Heartland documents included details about a plan to introduce climate denial into grade school curricula and a list of major donors that includes a rogues’ gallery of corporate interests. One document contained a summary of Heartland’s work promoting fracking. Surprising? Hardly. Embarrassing? Apparently.

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Here’s what Heartland President Joseph Bast had to say back in 2009 about the scientists’ emails, in an op-ed at that you can download from the institute’s website:

The release of these documents creates an opportunity for reporters, academics, politicians and others who relied on the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] to form their opinion about global warming to stop and reconsider their position …

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Looking at how past disclosures of fraud in the global warming debate have been dismissed or ignored by the mainstream media leads me to suspect that they’ll try to sweep this, too, under the rug. But thanks to the Internet, millions of people will be able to read the e-mails and make up their own minds.

This incident, then, won’t be forgotten. Journalists who attempt to spin it away and politicians who try to ignore it will further damage their own credibility, and perhaps see their careers shortened as a result.

When more emails were leaked to the press in November 2011, Heartland Senior Fellow James Taylor happily piled on with an op-ed in Forbes — this, despite the fact that three separate inquiries had already vindicated the scientists. (The second round of emails did nothing to advance the institute’s cause.)

But last week, when it was their own skivvies waving in the breeze, Heartland staffers weren’t exactly cheering the public’s “opportunity” to form its own opinions or thanking the internet for its openness. Instead, the institute took the offensive, claiming that one of the documents was a fake (although much of its contents simply summarize what is spelled out in great detail in the other documents, which the institute says “were obviously stolen”) and sending legal notices to publications (including Grist) demanding that the documents — and all commentary on, links to, and references regarding them — be taken down.

“We realize this will be portrayed by some as a heavy-handed threat to free speech,” Bast said in a statement on Feb. 19. “But the First Amendment doesn’t protect Internet fraud, and there is no right to defamatory speech.”

In a media advisory issued Feb. 20, Bast called the leak of the Heartland memos “an outrageous violation of ethics and law,” and called on DeSmogBlog and other publications that had reported on the memos to reveal the identity of their source:

It was likely either someone on their staffs or someone well known to them. It is unconscionable and illegal for them to conceal the identity of a person who has broken the law and who has damaged the reputations of many people and organizations, not only The Heartland Institute. At a minimum, they should share what information they do have with Heartland and the FBI …

The Heartland Institute wants to know who in the global warming movement conspired to steal and forge documents. What do the leaders of DesmogBlog and other organizations know? When did they know it? Why are they leaving forged documents on their Web sites?

Gleick came forward the next day. He admitted he had tricked the institute into sending him the documents. He said he’d anonymously received the summary memo (the one Heartland says is fake). The rest of the documents, he said, came directly from Heartland — something the institute has yet to confirm or deny. He sought them, he said, because he wanted some corroboration of the material in the anonymous memo he’d received.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press and New York Times have confirmed many of the details in the memos.

No matter. Heartland has already packaged up its outrage under a name and a new website: Fakegate. In his Feb. 20 media advisory, Bast declares: “Fakegate may be as damaging to the global warming movement as Climategate was.”