November 12, 2009

Reading Old Magazines: Is the CIA Being Led Astray?

Two weeks ago I wrote about the debate around what role the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) could play in analyzing climate change.  As I noted in that post, the CIA has already been playing a role since the mid-1990s. That got me thinking about the debate back when the CIA first stood up its Environment Center and started using its satellites to collect climate data. For this week’s Reading Old Magazines I took a look at an October 17, 1995 op-ed in The Washington Times, “Is the CIA being led astray?” While this is a newspaper article and not our usual old magazine, author Bruce Fein, a lawyer and free-lance writer with The Washington Times, offers some interesting points that help one understand the debate back when the CIA firsts began integrating climate change into its work.

During that time opponents seemed to bemoan looking beyond traditional security threats to include environmental concerns and climate change into intelligence assessments. “The national security of the United States is ill-served…by an agency without personnel made of sterner and less starry-eyed stuff,” Fein wrote. His suggestion that incorporating these concerns might pacify national security experts and intelligence analysts is indicative of the attitude at this time that including threats other than war was a luxury that could undermine hard security priorities.

In the mid-1990s, then-Vice President Al Gore asked the intelligence community to study the implications of key environmental factors on state failure to demonstrate how these seemingly lofty and idealistic concerns could engage hard security interests. According to Bruce Fein:

Vice President Al Gore has chirped madrigals celebrating the new intelligence prominence of famine, soil erosion, rapid population growth, and desertification in identifying future world crises. But whatever these factors may predict seems wildly removed from authentic national security interests of the United States.

In the wake of the Cold War, U.S. national security interests were still being defined narrowly around traditional threats: Fein points specifically to “preventing nuclear warheads from landing in Washington, D.C.” But today there is increased understanding that U.S. national security interests cannot be defined so narrowly.  Today we are seeing how famine, soil erosion, and desertification engage traditional security concerns. One need only look at the widespread food riots that erupted in some of the world’s most unstable countries in 2008 (Pakistan, for example), or the poor agricultural development in Afghanistan rooted, in part, in its decades of deforestation.

Interestingly, Fein criticizes then-Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs George Moose for lamenting the “intelligence community’s neglect of Somalia’s ebbing water table levels during the three years antedating the outbreak of famine and clan warfare there, a place of primeval triviality.” He argues that even if we had known about these environmental threats the United States would still not have been able to predict Somalia’s state failure. What is more, Fein seems to discount the possibility that Somalia’s state failure in general could undermine U.S. national security, just two years after the loss of U.S. troops in Mogadishu: “no sleep has ever been lost over any alleged endangerment to the security of the United States plausibly associated with Somalia’s continuing carnage and clan savagery.”

Today it is increasingly clear that natural resource scarcity can in fact worsen existing grievances to contribute to violence and state instability. Overfishing has been one of many factors exacerbating social instability in Somalia that some have linked to the pernicious piracy that plagues the Gulf of Aden today (fish being one of Africa’s most valuable natural resources, according to Ambassador Mary Yates, former civilian deputy at U.S. Africa Command). Meanwhile, prolonged drought has contributed to the violent clan warfare that has undergirded the instability in Somalia that has created ungoverned spaces that transnational terrorists groups such as al Qaeda can use as sanctuary to train, recruit, and plot attacks.

Fein closes his op-ed by stating that “Taxpayers will and should spurn an intelligence bureaucracy transfixed on whether the proliferation of the water hyacinth plant in Lake Victoria that causes diminishing fish harvests will provoke instability in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.”  Perhaps the security connection was not as clear in 1995, but a recent The New York Times report found that a border dispute between Uganda and Kenya over a tiny island on Lake Victoria with significant Nile perch fish stocks has provoked politicians in both states to threaten to go to war over the island. This dispute could in fact pose a threat to the United States. As I recently asked in another post on this dispute, “How will these issues present strategic challenges to the U.S. military? Stability in East Africa is of course of high strategic importance to the United States, as a home to al Qaeda activity, ungoverned spaces, and a large youth population.” The bottom line for Fein is that the “covert action and the clandestine collection and analysis of information directly pertinent to the national security of the United States were the twin founding pillars of the CIA.” Yet the cases of Somalia and East Africa show that understanding how these issues will engage our strategic interests in the region naturally aligns with the intelligence community’s priorities.