At CIA, Climate Change is a Secret

09.22.11 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

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.”