Why Does the CIA Keep Climate a Secret?

October 5, 2011

If climate change presented a national security peril to the United States (and many generals think it does), would it make sense to keep that secret?

The WatchDog wouldn’t guess that to be the case. Yet the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is busy keeping its work on the subject secret. Why?

Jeffrey T. Richelson, a historian at the National Security Archives, made a Freedom of Information Act request in March 2010 to the CIA’s Center on Climate Change and National Security (CCCNS). He asked for any significant reports or papers they had produced. On Sept. 16, 2011, the CIA finally responded, telling Richelson that all the material he requested was classified and thus exempt from FOIA.

CIA FOIA coordinator Susan Viscuso explained that the CIA was claiming the exemption under both its organic statute and the exemption for classified material.

The story was told by Steve Aftergood in Secrecy News, a publication of the Federation of American Scientists. Aftergood wrote that the CIA “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.”

There might be all kinds of information to protect – is the CCCNS using data from high-tech spy satellites? Analyzing reports from field agents in Pakistan about the opportunities that flooding there offers to the Taliban? More likely, perhaps, they may be feeling terrorized by Republican members of Congress who don’t want any research on the impacts of climate change.

There is a vast amount of open-source research literature on the potential national security threats from climate instability – including the floods in Pakistan and the current drought in the Horn of Africa. Keeping the threat secret may simply transform intelligence into un-intelligence.

WatchDog editor Joseph A. Davis was even more puzzled when he received an invitation to attend an apparent CIA seminar on the subject. The invitation came, first by Sept. 14, 2011, email and then by phone, from the Arlington, Va., firm CENTRA Technology on behalf of the “Center on Climate Change and National Security.” There was no mention of any CIA sponsorship. The invitation was to “a two-and-a-half-day [Oct. 3-5] simulation titled ECO HAVOC Exploring Sociopolitical Fallout from Climate Change-Driven Events and Weather Catastrophes – A National Security Simulation.” The offer was even more tempting because it included payment of travel expenses and a stay at the Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va. – as well as an honorarium for participation.

But for the WatchDog, this was the kicker: “In order to ensure the most robust dialogue possible, the simulation discussion topics and content will be considered not for disclosure.” The WatchDog was unable to attend – and wouldn’t if he could have.