The CIA, climate change, and government openness
I was a bit surprised by this post on the Secrecy News blog by Steven Aftergood, which admonishes the CIA for classifying all records held by the Center on Climate Change and National Security.
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.
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. [emphasis mine]
This topic of government secrecy is the bread and butter of Secrecy News, but in this case I think Mr. Aftergood’s anger may be misplaced. According to the CIA’s response letter, Jeffrey Richelson requested “any studies or reports (greater than 5 pages in length) produced by the CIA Center on Climate Change and National Security concerning impacts of global warming.”
Why would the CIA open a Center on Climate Change and National Security? They aren’t likely to be concerned with the science, politics, or validity of climate change. As their own press release says, the Center studies “the national security impact of phenomena such as desertification, rising sea levels, population shifts, and heightened competition for natural resources.” Their resulting work would ostensibly include assessments, projections, and perhaps evaluations of policy options.
The CIA can’t be expected to “say anything intelligent or useful about climate change,” and that certainly isn’t its purpose in having a specialized analysis unit. Why would the CIA grant special access to this unit’s current body of work as opposed to any other analysis team’s? The information and assessments are useful intelligence tools that would, theoretically, help policymakers understand current and potential security challenges brought about by changes in climate. Would Aftergood or Richelson be surprised if they were denied a request for access to reports assessing current or future Chinese satellite capabilities? The CIA produces a specific product for a specific audience; throwing the words “climate change” into the mix doesn’t change that.
Perhaps they expect the Center to possess different kinds of information or reports than it in actually does. The request was general enough that it could cover both innocuous and sensitive information, which would be a problem if the Center simply never prepared the kind unclassified work that Richelson would like to see. Again, the CIA’s purpose isn’t to “help us navigate the environmental challenges ahead”—we have plenty of smart scientists and analysts who can openly talk about their work for that—their Center on Climate Change and National Security is hopefully helping policymakers navigate the security challenges a changing environment will produce in the coming years. And if that work wasn’t sensitive enough to require classification, I wonder if it would be even worth the cost of producing.