Our man in the greenhouse

Why the CIA is spying on a changing climate

A first attempt

In the 1990s, while spies studied things like North Korean crop yields, attempting to anticipate where shortages could lead to instability, the CIA also shared a trove of classified environmental data with scientists through a program that became known as Medea.

History of environmental intelligence

1992 – The CIA clears about 60 environmental researchers to access classified satellite imagery for scientific purposes in a program that becomes known as Medea. (Watch video)

1995 – President Bill Clinton declassifies more than 800,000 satellite images of Earth’s surface, allowing scientists to establish a historical baseline for environmental changes.

1995 – The U.S. and Russia form an environmental working group that arranges a joint naval mission to survey the Arctic ocean, cooperative disaster monitoring, and swaps of Cold War satellite imagery to facilitate environmental clean-up.

1996 CIA Director John Deutch tells Congress that “a deteriorating environment can not only affect the political and economic stability of nations, it can also pose global threats to the well-being of mankind.” (Read his speech on the topic)

1997 With strong support from Vice President Al Gore, the CIA stands up an environmental center that incorporates crop yields and water scarcity into intelligence analyses and supports environmental treaty negotiation.

2001 After years of having its budget progressively trimmed by Congress, the CIA environmental center is disbanded by the Bush administration.

2007 The Energy Department’s intelligence unit creates an experimental energy and environment program that is shuttered after two years. (Watch video)

2008 The National Intelligence Council produces an intelligence assessment on threats posed by climate change. (Congressional testimony from former chairman of the National Intelligence Council)

2009 The first major declassification of environmental data in nearly a decade — 700 Arctic images — signals a restart of intelligence community work on the topic. (Read report)

2009 The CIA opens a Center on Climate Change and National Security.

“The whole group [of scientists] were patriots and this was an opportunity to help the country do something about the train wreck [we] saw coming” from climate change, said Robert Bindschadler, a glaciologist at NASA who received a security clearance when Medea started in 1992.

Cleared scientists also helped the CIA interpret environmental data and improve collection methods, former CIA Director John Deutch said in a 1996 speech (pdf).

But the Republican-controlled Congress progressively trimmed these programs, and after President George W. Bush took office in 2001, top-level interest in environmental security programs disappeared and intelligence officials working on them were reassigned.

Terry Flannery, who led the CIA’s environmental security center until 2000, said he had to tread lightly in his final years running it.

“You had this odd thing where it became an interchange of science and politics,” he said.  “At times, it was just strange.”

Retired Gen. Michael Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006-2009, said issues such as energy and water made Bush’s daily briefings, but climate change was not a part of the agenda.

“I didn’t have a market for it when I was director,” Hayden said in a recent interview. “It was all terrorism all the time, and when it wasn’t, it was all Iran.”

The Bush administration was also openly skeptical of global warming.  A 2007 congressional oversight report (pdf) found the administration “engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.”

Today, climate scientists say their research is hindered by a data gap resulting from inadequate funding during the Bush years. In 2005, the National Research Council (pdf) said the nation’s environmental satellite system was “at risk of collapse.”

A new type of intelligence

Even during the Bush administration, though, pockets of work moved forward.

In 2007, Department of Energy intelligence chief Mowatt-Larssen built an experimental program called Global Energy & Environment Strategic Ecosystem, or Global EESE.  He tapped Carol Dumaine, a CIA foresight strategist known around the agency as a creative visionary, to lead the program.

“Our modern intelligence evolved for a different type of threat — monolithic, top-down, incrementally changing,” Dumaine, who has since returned to the CIA, said in a recent interview.   She, on the other hand, was “trying to grow a garden of intelligence genius.”

The program brought together more than 200 of the brightest minds from around the world  to explore the impact of issues such as abrupt climate change, energy infrastructure and environmental stresses in Afghanistan.

But after only two years, the program was shuttered.  Former members say it was brought down by bureaucratic infighting, political pressure from both Congress and the Bush White House, and concerns about including foreign nationals in the intelligence arena.

“The most important thing we lost is data — we lost the data that accompanies new ways of conducting intelligence and for getting it right with environmental problems,” Mowatt-Larssen said.

Interest from the Hill

In April 2007, a group of high-ranking retired military officers published a report that said projected changes to the climate posed a “serious threat to America’s national security.”

Within weeks, a handful of lawmakers from both parties were pushing to get climate change back on the intelligence community’s agenda.

Chuck Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska, drafted legislation that called climate change “a clear and present danger to the security of the United States” and would have required an intelligence report on it.

Although the provision went nowhere, the National Intelligence Council moved ahead on its own.

“The goal was to produce enough understanding of the effects, the way they played out, government capacity, to tee up for U.S. government agencies the kind of questions they better start asking now in order to be ready 20 years from now,” said Thomas Fingar, who was chairman of the NIC at the time and now teaches at Stanford University.

Three months after the assessment was completed, the NIC appointed retired Maj. Gen. Richard Engel as director of its new climate change and state stability program.

Some lawmakers were so alarmed by the findings of the classified National Intelligence Assessment that they pushed for a resurrection of Clinton-era environmental intelligence programs.

Catching up with the threat

Since the CIA center launched in September 2009 with strong support from Director Leon Panetta, Larry’s team of about 15 analysts has inventoried the intelligence community’s collection of environmental data, restarted the Medea program and begun developing tools that bring global climate forecasts down to the regional level.

“We’re asking the questions that policymakers probably should, if they weren’t so wrapped up in the day-to-day other things,” Larry said.

But Pentagon officials say the information they most need does not yet exist.

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1 Comment

  1. Snapple says:

    Great site, but the video here does not work for me. I saw it on the Mc Clatchy site, however.