Environmental change: a security issue?

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Intelligence analysts are once again entangled in political controversy, but this time the topic is the environment.

Some in Congress want U.S. intelligence agencies to produce a comprehensive report on the security impacts of climate change. But Republican critics contend that intelligence analysts have more important things to do.

"The intelligence community continues to be so inadequate at addressing today's pressing problems that we shouldn't be diverting its attention," said Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the top-ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.

At its core, the debate is over whether environmental changes - such as rising sea levels that could affect population and migration patterns - should be treated as security issues.

This isn't the first battle of its kind. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration, led by Vice President Al Gore, launched multiple initiatives to examine the security implications of environmental degradation, arguing that such issues as drought and access to natural resources often lead to regional conflict.

But a Republican-controlled Congress pared funding for such projects and finally ended them shortly after President Bush took office in 2001.

"It became very politicized, not within the agency, not within the country, but clearly in the Congress," recalled Terry Flannery, who launched the CIA's Environmental Center in 1997. And once Republicans took the White House, he said, "you couldn't mention the environment. It was too contentious."

Last month, the House approved a measure that would require a national intelligence report on climate change. The Senate is expected to take up the matter soon.

Intelligence professionals, including National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, say it is appropriate to evaluate security implications of the projected effects of climate change. McConnell's staff has already begun a smaller-scale version of the proposed report in anticipation of interest from lawmakers and other policymakers.

But Hoekstra said McConnell should have higher priorities - building up his own office; monitoring radical Islam; collecting better intelligence from human sources.

"We still haven't fixed [those] yet," Hoekstra said. Also, "it wouldn't be bad if we actually had [a satellite-intelligence] plan, and it might be nice to really know what's going on in Iran, North Korea and China."

Some intelligence professionals lament the caricaturing of intelligence analysts who monitor the effects of failing crops and rising tides as "clam petters and tree huggers," as one put it. Those trends will affect the decisions governments make in the future, they said, and analysts who would work on an environmental report would be different from those assigned to counterterrorism.

Critics "are making a much bigger issue out of it than it is," said John Gannon, who ran the CIA's analysis division in the 1990s and oversaw environmental assessments. Intelligence agencies are uniquely equipped to understand the national security impact of trends in deforestation and food availability and their effect on political stability, "particularly in places we care about," he said.

When John M. Deutch headed the CIA, in the mid-1990s, he noted that "even in times of declining budgets," analysts should examine the security impacts of floods, food shortages, droughts and deforestation because "the costs are small and the potential benefits enormous."

Flannery, who left the agency in 1999, said the CIA's Environmental Center had become a political football.

"I was told flat-out, 'We'll see who wins the next election,'" he said, adding that the issues his center was handling had "become too political."

The center was soon folded into an intelligence analysis group that handled societal issues. Its head, a longtime CIA analyst, was whisked away two days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to run a new anti-terrorism team, but the environmental initiatives had already effectively ended.

"It was absolutely unrelated" to the Sept. 11 attacks, said an intelligence official who worked on environmental issues and who like some others requested anonymity to speak candidly.

The coordinated effort to examine the security effects of environmental problems has been largely dormant since Bush took office in 2001, though the State Department has pursued some environmental questions.

The CIA also tracks a range of issues that cause instability, including disease epidemics, resource constraints and demographic changes. The U.S. Army War College has held conferences and training sessions on disaster preparedness and how environmental degradation can contribute to conditions that foster terrorism.

Environmental problems such as severe drought or crop failure can dissolve governments, said Kent Butts, who directs national security issues at the Army War College. "When countries fall apart, the breeding grounds for terrorism are created."

By determining the regions where environmental problems like flooding or famine could create fertile ground for terrorist activity, the United States and other countries can fashion measures to bolster the local government and stabilize countries, he said.

Disputes over water rights regularly cause conflict, particularly in the Middle East, security specialists said.

Similarly, oil exploitation in Nigeria has depleted a host of natural resources, polluting fishing waters and inciting conflict, they said.

Deforestation can lead to soil erosion, devastating the local economy, as it has in Haiti. In recent years, thousands have died in flooding from intense storms, and poverty and instability forced Haiti's president to flee in 2004.

"You need to identify these things before they become red flags," said Gary Vest, a former Pentagon official who specialized in environmental security.

Environmental agreements to reduce pollution or improve water management can forge and strengthen ties between governments and help defuse conflicts in the future, he said. Disaster preparedness efforts, said Butts, can have a similar impact.

Advocates of environmental intelligence said considerable expertise and time have been lost since the end of the environmental intelligence programs in 2001.

The government "could have helped address some of the underlying causes of terrorism," said Sherri Goodman, a former top Pentagon official specializing in environmental security who is now a military adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses, a think tank in Alexandria, Va.

The center released a report last month from a group of retired generals and admirals - including retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, former head of the Pentagon's Central Command - that urged the government to take measures to anticipate and prevent or lessen the security issues presented by changing weather patterns.

Leon Fuerth, a longtime Gore adviser, said in an interview that the United States has reached a "tipping point" in which environmental issues will be factored into national security decisions. But other veterans of past battles see the possibility for another stalemate.

One government official who worked on the 1990s initiatives said, "My fear is they are going to sort of end up in the same place."


Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad