December 01, 2009

Reading Old Magazines: “Enviro-intelligence: The CIA Goes Green”

This week’s Reading Old Magazines returns to another topic I have been researching lately in conjunction with our Lost in Translation project and sparked by the recent news that the CIA will be standing up a Center for Climate Change and National Security: the nexus of national security and climate science. In a recent post I assessed some of the failures in imagination of an October 1995 op-ed in the Washington Times that argued against the Central Intelligence Agency playing any useful role in studying the implications of climate change. For today’s post I took a look at a March 16, 1998 U.S. News & World Report piece by Bruce B. Auster, “Enviro-intelligence: The CIA Goes Green,” which discussed the greening of the CIA and the opportunities afforded to the United States for using its intelligence assets to study the implications of climate change.

It is no secret that the United States and the Soviet Union routinely spied on each other during the Cold War, using high-resolution imagery to assess each other’s intentions and capabilities. But with the end of the Cold War, the volumes of data became less useful – that is until climate scientists began to use this treasure trove of climate science and environmental information to study the implications of climate change.

As I wrote previously, a civilian intelligence program known as MEDEA (Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis) allowed a small, select group of civilian scientists access to classified, high-resolution imagery to study climate change (particularly useful since spy satellites have 15-30 times sharper images than the next best commercial satellites). But because the CIA is barred from domestic spying, American scientists relied on an unlikely exchange with a longtime foe to fill the gaps in their research on the implications of climate change for the United States. Auster described the unique opportunities for this scientific exchange between the United States and Russia:

For Decades, U-2 spy planes and satellites photographed Soviet military sites in the Yegoryevsk Forest near Moscow, the Biryusa River basin near Krasnoyarsk, and elsewhere in Siberia. The Soviets spied on the Brooks Range and other parts of Alaska. This sequence of pictures now serves as a time machine for viewing environmental change. And because the CIA is forbidden by law to photograph U.S. territory, it needs data from Moscow to study America’s forests.

According to Auster, due to security concerns, the United States and Russia would not exchange raw photos, but instead would “trade detailed diagrams derived from spy imagery.” At the time the article was written, Russia was planning to provide the United States with data derived from “spy photos of Florida Bay so that U.S. scientists [could] study its dying sea grasses and dwindling mangroves.” The United States planned to reciprocate by providing Russian scientists with diagrams based on American spy photographs to “map flood plains and marshes, helping to plan new oil pipelines and minimize the impacts of spills.”

During the Cold War this particular type of scientific exchange might have been unheard of. But with the end of the Cold War, environmental cooperation offered the one-time rivals an entry point for cooperation and intelligence sharing that would serve their broader national security interests.

For Auster, sharing intelligence imagery for climate science was “one more sign that the CIA itself [was] turning green.” But I think a word of caution is in order about using this notion of “greening” the CIA (not least of all because “greening” refers to making something more environmentally sustainable – it does not indicate how they use climate science or environmental information). Instead it may be more accurate to describe the CIA’s shift as an expansion, similar to one the U.S. national security apparatus was going through during the post-Cold War era. With the changing nature of the threat environment, the U.S. national security community began to assess new norms for what is security. Naturally, with climate change and environmental threats making headlines during the 1990s, the CIA began to, as Auster wrote, “monitor and forecast crises – from fires in Indonesia to water shortages in the Mideast – that could affect America’s economic and security interests.” (emphasis mine)

But semantics aside, it is clear that the use of intelligence assets to study climate change and environmental degradation offered new opportunities for the United States that may not have been possible less than a decade before. It goes to show that resource-related information, even that gained through spycraft, can be a useful diplomatic tool.