CIA Closes Climate Change Research Project

Apropos yesterday’s post about the longstanding relationship between DoD and the civilian scientists at NASA, Mother Jones is reporting that the CIA is closing down the Medea program, which gave civilian scientists classified environmental data to analyze, and sometimes even publish (h/t io9). The basic exchange is pretty simple: civilian scientists get access to better data than they would otherwise have, and the CIA gets analytical capacity that would cost far more to acquire directly. According to Mother Jones, Medea dates back to 1992 (with a hiatus during the George W. Bush administration).

The general principal of drawing on data collected by the intelligence community for broader scientific purposes is not a new one. As I mentioned yesterday, James E. David catalogs a number of such projects in Spies and Shuttles, including Project ARGO in the 1960s. The Environmental Science Services Administration, White House Office of Emergency Planning, Agency for International Development, Departments of Transportation and Agriculture, and especially the US Geological Survey were all early users of spy satellite-collected data. A 1990s Government Applications Task Force similarly brought in classified satellite data to use for wetlands mapping, crop yield
estimation, and bilge oil monitoring, among other projects.* The USGS even built an entire facility outside Washington (Building E-1 in Reston, Virginia) so that it could handle classified imagery of the US from CORONA, the first generation of spy satellites.

What makes Medea different from many of these applications, at least at first glance, is that the CIA was releasing data in order to generate knowledge it wanted. Unlike in Project ARGO or the USGS use of satellite imagery for mapping, where the intelligence community let classified information be used on issues in which it was essentially uninterested, the CIA does want information on the process and short- and long-term impact of climate change.

With that in mind, that Mother Jones and io9 have pitched this story as a sign the CIA is stopping or slowing its climate change research is probably incorrect. Unless the agency has suddenly decided that climate change’s impact is overblown (and nothing in the last decade suggests that’s likely), it seems more plausible ā€“ and probably more disturbing ā€“ that the issue is now being treated seriously enough that the CIA wants the outcome of its analysis with the high quality classified data to remain classified. That suggests a perception that understanding of climate change and its impact might have some geostrategic value (or at least the chance thereof; the bar for keeping things classified in the US can be pretty low). It also, unfortunately, means that whatever discoveries CIA-funded research makes from now on will be harder and harder to share with the rest of the scientific community, let alone the rest of the world.

*Jeffrey T. Richelson’s article “The Office That Never Was: The Failed Creation of the National Applications Office,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 24:1 (2011), covers both eras.

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