Secrecy News

At CIA, Climate Change is a Secret

Updated below

When the Central Intelligence Agency established a Center on Climate Change and National Security in 2009, it drew fierce opposition from congressional Republicans who disputed the need for an intelligence initiative on this topic.  But now there is a different, and possibly better, reason to doubt the value of the Center:  It has adopted an extreme view of classification policy which holds that everything the Center does is a national security secret.

Last week, the CIA categorically denied (pdf) a request under the Freedom of Information Act for a copy of any Center studies or reports concerning the impacts of global warming.

“We completed a thorough search for records responsive to your request and located material that we determined is currently and properly classified and must be denied in its entirety…,” wrote CIA’s Susan Viscuso to requester Jeffrey Richelson, an intelligence historian affiliated with the National Security Archive.

With some effort, one can imagine records related to climate change that would be properly classified.  Such records might, for example, include information that was derived from classified collection methods or sources that could be compromised by their disclosure.  Or perhaps such records might present analysis reflecting imminent threats to national security that would be exacerbated rather than corrected by publicizing them.

But that’s not what CIA said.  Rather, it said that all of the Center’s work is classified and there is not even a single study, or a single passage in a single study, that could be released without damage to national security.  That’s a familiar song, and it became tiresome long ago.

But in this case, it is more than an annoyance.  The CIA response indicates a fundamental lack of discernment that calls into question the integrity of the Center on Climate Change, if not the Agency as a whole.  If the CIA really thinks (or pretends to think) that every document produced by the Center constitutes a potential threat to national security, who can expect the Center to say anything intelligent or useful about climate change?  Security robots cannot help us navigate the environmental challenges ahead.  Better to allocate the scarce resources to others who can.

Meanwhile, access by scientists to classified military intelligence data on the environment has actually been improving lately, reports Geoff Brumfiel in the latest edition of Nature (“Military surveillance data: Shared intelligence,” 21 September 2011, sub. req’d).  Among other things, the Clinton-Gore era group of cleared scientists known as MEDEA (Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis) was reconvened in 2008 at congressional request.

A Federation of American Scientists proposal to expand public access to unclassified open source intelligence products (“Open Up Open Source Intelligence,” Secrecy News, August 24) did not find favor with the White House.  Nothing like it was included in the new U.S. National Action Plan (pdf) for the Open Government Partnership, which mostly elaborates and restates previous commitments.

Update: The National Intelligence Council has published a collection of commissioned papers on “The Impact of Climate Change to 2030” which do not, however, “reflect official U.S. Government positions.”

15 thoughts on “At CIA, Climate Change is a Secret

  1. Security robots cannot help us navigate the environmental challenges ahead. Better to allocate the scarce resources to others who can.

    Security robots — bravo! Unfortunately, you can’t shame machines. It was worth a try, though.

  2. As much as I love a good conspiracy theory, I think that it’s possible that CIA documents that are the result of global spectrographic intelligence gathering could expose the existence of diabolically clever techniques that cost oodles of money to develop and deploy. They aren’t going to release documents that beg embarrassing questions. Ever heard of a report titled “long-distance remote laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy using filamentation in air”? That sort of thing began to be developed around 20 years ago, and has come a long way indeed since then.

  3. This is a poster example of stupid and damaging over-classification. I get that there’s a lot of political “leaders” who are as dumb as tree stumps about science. However outside of that I can’t think of any good reason for this sort of foolish blanket classification of all information. A good portion of what they work with is probably already public, so none of what they’re doing with classification stands to reason very well.

    Things that should get done do not get done when organizations act in this manner. Not only do they create huge wastes of public funds, but the fields that they’re ostensibly supposed to be working inside of end up measurably harmed due to brainless classification activities.

    When the subject is climate change, this is particularly damning behavior. This is change that affects everyone. The old strategies of the body politic burying it’s collective head in the sand are not going to keep working. In part this has been accomplished by burying the work of the people who work on climate change, exactly as the CIA is doing.

    The bottom line though is that the changing climate doesn’t give a damn about anyone’s opinion. What people say, or don’t say, will not cause it to stop changing. Nothing will do that at this point, the best we can hope for is improvement before the species becomes extinct. That’s very unlikely, but perhaps in retrospect as future CIA employees take a water taxi up the Potomac they’ll reflect that it would have been nice had their predecessors not been a pile of fear driven fools.

  4. The CIA is the worst of the worst when it comes to federal government agency compliance with FOIA law. It has stood in open violation of E-FOIA for 15 years, and refuses to release documents on CD-ROM in response to FOIA requests.

  5. If everything this office does is classified, maybe this office isn’t doing anything related to climate change. The name of the office is just a plaque on the door.

  6. The problem is with definition. If they classify everything about the study, including the real title of the study, then “Climate Change” must be a misnomer.

  7. Curious how the classified information within the document will be used to influence policy. Or can it be? If it’s classified does it just sit there, without true applicability?

  8. It is my opinion that much of the information that the CIA deals with could have political ramifications which, especially in todays hot political environment, could cause a lot of attention that they wish to avoid. The CIA likely doesnt believe that everything they do could pose a risk to national security, however by puting all their documents under classified, it saves them time and resources that may be wasted by going through those documents line by line to decide which are security risks and which are not.

  9. The CIA has a very long tradition of interest about climate change…but since it’s also not exactly something to shout home about, the reticence might be understandable…

  10. Canada just released its Findings on the loss of its Ice fields, and the impact on global warming with the (AP) Associated Press in conference. Good timing.

  11. But there are risks in ignoring climate change as well…risks and costs! Surely they know this, but have decided that ignoring it is cheaper than confronting it head on????

  12. Blowing the whistle on government malfeasance is treated more or less as treason today, generally with the rationale that some security classification or other has been compromised. I’m sure that’s balanced by a concomitant law making it treason to misuse security classifications to cover your ass, protect someone’s career, avoid political embarrassment, or conceal the brazen theft of taxpayers’ dollars.

  13. You mean…there ISN’T a law like that? Wow. That would seem to open us up to all KINDS of abuse. I’ll be darned.

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