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Spying on the environment.

James Bond Meets Captain Planet, as the CIA Struggles to Find a New Mission for Itself

The story of the CIA and the environment started when a balding, bespectacled lawyer leaned forward across the table, facing the phalanx of congressmen arranged in rows before him. "I want to call your attention to one initiative, in particular, that demonstrates the willingness of the Community both to listen to good ideas from the outside and to use existing resources in new ways."

It was a rare, open session of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, in March of last year. The lawyer was R. James Woolsey, director of the CIA. And the "community" that he referred to was the U.S. intelligence community, whose budget, mission, and even raison d'etre were being called into question by Congress. Woolsey said that the CIA had joined with a team of outside scientists to take a look at "deforestation, Arctic ice and coastline changes, shifting tundra boundaries and desertification."

I scribbled a few notes and glanced at the wheels on my tape recorder to make sure it was getting this. The CIA was working on the world environment? Indeed. In 1992, a team of civilian environmental scientists was paired with CIA officials in an unprecedented, and controversial, task force, whose work has sought to answer the question: Can America's Cold War apparatus of high-tech spy gear--satellites, planes, ships, submarines--be mobilized to track a new enemy: the degradation of the environment?

The CIA isn't ready to stop watching the bad guys, whose ranks have swelled recently to include terrorists, drug traffickers and traders in nuclear weapons technology, along with more traditional targets. But the fact remains that hundreds of billions of dollars worth of CIA and Pentagon "assets" in space and in the oceans have less to do than ever before. Along with their workaday spying activities, might these devices be used to measure greenhouse gases, ocean temperatures, polar ice thickness, forest and desert boundaries, and more?

To find out, in October 1992 a carefully selected team of 70 scientists was handed the keys to a treasure trove of data on the world environment. Like lucky spelunkers stumbling into a cavern of wonders, the scientists eagerly sought to examine the CIA's secret archives of photographic and radar images, undersea records and atmospheric data gathered over decades by America's armada of sensors.

Ushered into the innermost sanctum of the spy world, the scientists got to push the buttons that control the ultrasecret satellites run by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), whose very name was classified until last year. These are the satellites that look down from afar, see through clouds and darkness, look into windows from space and read Russian license plates. Using these devices, the CIA conducted a series of 13 experiments, involving the blackest of black collection devices, to determine whether the systems could be applied to environmental science.

While the CIA acknowledges the existence of the task force, its composition and its work are classified as Top Secret, according to CIA spokesman David French, "because of the collection devices involved, some of which we don't even admit we have."

However, one of the scientists on the CIA's task force, who asked that his name not be used, said that the agency is also trying to protect secrets about technology that it doesn't have. "I was amazed at some stuff that we had that I had no idea that we had," he said. "And I was also amazed at some stuff that I was totally certain we had that we don't have."

The scientists' initial report, completed last December and circulated on a classified basis within the intelligence community, leaves no doubt that the community's archives and collection devices could provide invaluable clues to understanding global climate change.

The entire effort could founder should the CIA decide that the risks of revealing too much about the workings of the intelligence apparatus outweigh the potential benefits to civilian environmental scientists. The project raises some big questions: Is it the proper role of the U.S. intelligence community to collect pure scientific data rather than national security information? And what does the CIA know about the environment, anyway?

TO GET SOME PERSPECTIVE ON THE CIA'S ENVIRONMENTAL Task Force, I went to see Robert Gates. Gates retired last year after a long CIA career capped by a term as director, and it was on his watch that the Agency launched its inquiry into environmental science. A veteran of the spy wars of the 1980s, when then-Director William Casey often "took the curves with two wheels out over the cliff," in the words of a former CIA officer, Gates is now in private business and is writing the obligatory book. In his modest K Street office, he seemed somewhat smaller than life. The heady narcotic of daily U.S. intelligence briefings no longer courses through his veins, but he seemed unperturbed about being cut off from the flow of classified information, saying, "When I read the newspapers, I read between the lines."

Gates said that the CIA task force "owes its existence to two people: then-Senator Al Gore, whose idea it was, and me, who said yes." Gore, he said, had long believed that the U.S. intelligence community's archives contained valuable information on climate, land use, oceans and atmospheric conditions. In addition, there had been some talk about using reconnaissance satellites and other sensors to gather new information about the environment.

So, Gates went on, the CIA recruited a team of scientists "from the private sector, from universities and institutes, and we gave them all clearances. We explained to them what the capabilities of our systems were and what we had in the way of an archive."

I asked the former spy chief if he could give me a list of the scientists who took part. Gates urged me to contact the CIA directly. "There's nothing classified about it," he said. The CIA's public affairs office at first assured me the list was available. Then, a few days later, I was told the list would remain classified.

Sources in the intelligence community and on Capitol Hill speculated that the CIA was worried that the scientists, not comfortable with the rigors of national security secrets, would be liable to reveal classified details about the workings of the supersecret spy apparatus. Others guessed that the scientists themselves, having agreed to be part of a CIA task force, did not want to have their names made public. Being associated with the CIA, even on a project like this, carries baggage.

"I find this whole aspect fairly puzzling," said Gates. "If they are ashamed to be working with their government, and to have their names associated with it, or they consider that it would be damaging to their reputations, they should have stayed the hell out, and made way for somebody who was willing to be public about it!"

All of this secrecy seemed less than conducive to scientific inquiry. When I eventually found a source willing to provide some of the names of the scientists, they proved to be an impressive lot. Among them were James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York; Jeffrey Dozier of the University of California-Santa Barbara Center for Remote Sensing and Environmental Optics; Norbert Untersteiner of the University of Washington, a polar climatologist; and Wilfred Weeks of the University of Alaska, an expert on sea ice who has worked with advanced radar imaging devices.

Weeks praised the work of the task force, but added that the CIA goes overboard on insisting that so much of the information remain secret. "Having these things classified devalues the currency of things that really should be classified." Hansen, of the Goddard Institute, also seemed to chafe under the secrecy that surrounded the task force's work, saying, "I would hope that things do become more open."

Insisting on anonymity, another scientist wryly described the difficulties of working within the confines of the CIA project. Citing restrictions on communicating over open phone lines, he said, "My conversations with my contacts [in the CIA] are always like teenage lovers trying to talk in the presence of their parents. As soon as I leave Washington, I can't talk to anybody."

AT THIS POINT, I COULDN'T HELP THINKING THAT THE CIA wanted to win a few points in Congress by doing some environmental work. After all, during the 1980s the intelligence community's budget soared, and it is now facing growing pressure from those in Congress who control its purse strings. Although the American intelligence budget is classified, annual spending by the CIA and other spy agencies is generally accepted to be in the range of $28 billion. According to Senator Dennis DeConcini (D-Arizona), who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the annual figure has been slashed by $5 billion over the past three years, and further cuts are inevitable.

In this context, the CIA seems on the lookout for new missions. Said a CIA source, "We won the Cold War. What can we do for you now?" For the answer, look no further than the insides of missile silos in the former Soviet Union.

Dozens of launch clusters are strung out along the trans-Siberian railway, scattered like daisies in a field of green. Altogether, some 1,600 missile silos contain enough explosive power to vaporize most of the United States, and, as a result, U.S. spy satellites cannot get enough pictures of the little holes. For decades, repeatedly, constantly, perhaps up to twice a day, spy satellites snapped their portraits. Most likely, as winter changed to spring, military analysts didn't notice that the snow surrounding the missile silos melted.

"One of the things that tells you something about climate change trends is the date of the last snow melt at any given latitude," says Jessica Mathews, an environmentalist who last year served in the State Department's new section devoted to global issues like pollution, population control and refugees. "Well, the United States took pictures of the Soviet missile sites all the time."

Adds Mathews, "Ocean data is terribly valuable. Sea ice is one of the key climate change measurements. Submarines in the Arctic collected sea ice measurements every day, and nothing like that record exists anywhere else, both in terms of the extent of sea ice and the depth."

Three years ago, Mathews had already begun organizing brainstorming sessions about a possible CIA role in the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York. The operating principle was that, despite decades of worrying about the environment, there remain huge gaps in what we know about the state of the world we live in. CFR's project brought together dozens of intelligence specialists with environmental scientists in 1991 and 1992.

Among the attendees at the Council's sessions was Leon Fuerth, an aide to then-Senator Al Gore. Coincidentally, says Mathews, Gore had already been looking into the usefulness of data from the Pentagon on the state of the world's oceans, including currents, temperature, salinity and chemical makeup. Soon after that, Gore sent a letter to CIA Director Gates asking for the CIA's help and, in the spring of 1992, the Environmental Task Force was officially launched.

IN A CLATTERING CAFE IN ONE OF CRYSTAL CITY'S LOOK-alike towers, ex-CIA analyst Bruce Berkowitz munched on a bagel. Berkowitz, who took part in the CFR project that studied the use of intelligence satellites to ferret out environmental data, spoke somberly about the CIA's reluctance to open its doors to science.

"I can tell you why these guys are so sensitive. You blow their system and they're out of business. They know what happens when their systems are compromised, because they've actually seen their opponent taking counter-measures," Berkowitz recalls.

Another reason for the CIA's insistence on closely guarding the imagery is that the astonishing detail that can be seen in a photograph taken from several hundred miles away--at an oblique angle, in bad weather, in late afternoon when shadows are intense--is unnerving to adversaries and allies alike. During the Gulf War, for instance, when French bomber pilots were given photographs of Iraqi targets taken from space by U.S. reconnaissance satellites, they were mightily impressed.

Bear with me now for a few technical details.

The U.S. array of spy satellites is a multilayered one, ranging from fast-moving imaging spacecraft revolving in tight orbits to those in distant, geosynchronous orbits that keep them hovering in place 22,300 miles high, to others in deep space a quarter of the way to the moon.

Although the CIA refuses to release any technical details about its reconnaissance satellite capabilities, books, trade magazines and technical articles have appeared over the years that give a pretty good idea of the workings of these devices.

It is generally recognized that the resolution capability of the best U.S. satellites, the advanced KENNAN orbiters, can be measured in inches. A high-resolution mirror telescope, not unlike the one aboard the Hubble spacecraft, can be focused widely or narrowed to a laser-like precision. The telescope feeds images to the gadgetry aboard the satellite, which can record both visible light--i.e. photographs, called "electro-optical images"--and invisible (or "infrared") radiation in the form of heat given off by an object. This latter capability allows the satellite to "see" images at night. In addition, the satellite carries a device called a photomultiplier tube, which allows the camera to take advantage of ultra-low-light conditions.

Another type of satellite, code-named LACROSSE, uses radar to record images. Bouncing signals off the earth and recording the echo, the so-called "synthetic aperture radar" (SAR) devices can penetrate clouds and atmospheric turbulence to create images of breathtaking precision.

The sleepless eyes in the sky encase their data in code and zap it deep into space, where it is collected by another system of communications satellites. These, in turn, blurt out huge volumes of encrypted data in digital form in seconds. Most of it is beamed to a bunker-like concrete building in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, which serves as the downlink center.

Once on the ground, the satellite data passes through what the CIA regards as its most precious possession: the software that coaxes unworldly clarity and three-dimensional "virtual reality"-type images from the raw input. By using computers to combine overhead photography and radar imaging from various angles, the wizards at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) can generate computer-animated images that make the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park look like something from Gumby.

ALTHOUGH THE REPORT OF THE CIA'S ENVIRONMENTAL Task Force is classified, I managed to obtain an eight-page draft summary of it. It contains dozens of gee-whiz applications for the CIA's sensors and archival imagery.

Yet the report, written by eager scientists on the basis of top-secret experiments, is not a policy document. It merely lays out the possibilities. "Changes in vegetative and desert boundaries, which may be sensitive indicators of global climate change, can be tracked over time by satellite systems," the report says. "The monitoring of changes in ocean temperature could provide a direct measurement of global warming. Undersea listening systems also may be able to detect this effect by measuring changes in ocean sound speed over long distances," the report adds.

A major topic considered in the report concerns forests and biodiversity. At present, environmentalists can easily obtain civilian satellite photos of the world's forests through LANDSAT, which combines the talents of NASA, RCA and Hughes Aircraft to produce infrared color images of land areas and oceans.

But LANDSAT doesn't do closeups.

Where resolution as precise as 10 inches is a snap for the NRO, LANDSAT struggles to achieve resolution of 10 meters. Where LANDSAT can show only broad splotches of greenery, the NRO's satellites can zoom in to actually count the number of trees in a particular area and even to determine what species they are. By taking a number of highly precise U.S. intelligence images of small forest areas, then mapping those points on the broader canvas of the LANDSAT images, scientists ought to be able to calibrate less accurate LANDSAT data and, by extrapolation, obtain much more detailed information about the world's forests, according to the CIA report and intelligence experts.

Yet another spy device--using infrared technology for what the CIA calls signature recognition and measurement, or MASINT--was designed to analyze the plumes of missiles as they streak across the sky and to recognize other heat patterns, such as factory emissions, then to analyze their chemical composition.

"So, if you take a reflection of, let's say, sunlight off the top of a forest canopy, you can do a spectral analysis of the composition of the forest," says Bruce Berkowitz, the former CIA analyst. "That will tell you if it's deficient in certain chemicals that are associated with healthy vegetation."

Finally, the same intelligence system whose unblinking eye is designed to detect the sudden flare-up of an ICBM as it emerges from its silo--the so-called Defense Support Program early warning satellites--can be used to look out for forest fires, the CIA task force found. Like space-based forest rangers, they would scan the rainforest in Brazil looking for fires set by ground-clearing renegades and watch over the Pacific Northwest in the United States.

The CIA also found many other potential applications. Satellite radar devices and submarines could combine to measure the thickness of the polar ice pack, whose variation provides a good indicator of climate change. The extraordinarily precise Global Positioning System could be used to track ice floes and ocean buoys, which relay data about ocean temperatures, salinity and current to overhead satellites. A vast array of undersea listening devices maintained by the U.S. Navy, currently monitoring ocean depths for hostile submarines, could be used to track whale migration and listen for storms, undersea volcanoes and earthquakes.

BUT SCIENTISTS, BOTH INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE TASK force, worry that much of the data will prove less valuable than hoped for, and that the CIA's classification system will prevent the best information from ever seeing the light of day.

James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, is one of the scientists on the CIA task force. "What's actually driving climate change, for example--small changes in solar irradiants or man-made gases in the atmosphere or aerosols--requires very precise measurements in order to detect and quantify the changes that are occurring. That's not the kind of thing the intelligence systems have been designed to look for," Hansen says.

Even more troubling to scientists is that the CIA appears to be unwilling just to release the data. To protect the secrecy of its collection devices, the CIA intends to disguise the origin of the data in such a way that scientists may not be able to tell exactly when or where the information comes from.

Eric Rodenburg of the World Resources Institute says, "Let's talk about ice pack thickness. There is resistance [at the CIA] to releasing this data with precise dates, times and locations, and method of how the thickness was estimated, and therefore some idea of the accuracy of those measurements. Well, those are exactly the things that people need to know."

And Kenneth Hunkins, an oceanographer at New York's Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, says, "In science, the general idea is that you do publish your results, and they're open to everybody. And the critical part of the definition is that the results are reproducible. But, of course, if you're the only one who has some complicated satellite, nobody else can reproduce it."

John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists adds, "The cultural antagonism here is that the fundamental tenet in science is that you tell everyone everything, and the fundamental tenet in intelligence is that you don't tell anyone anything."

Finally, Wilfred Weeks, the University of Alaska sea ice expert who was part of the task force and who helped to write the report, said that the cost of pulling data out of the archives may be prohibitively expensive. "You're talking big bucks here," he said. Being able to retrieve a particular photograph or digital image from a mountain of archival data, particularly when such data was not indexed for environmental purposes, "is a nightmare," said Weeks.

REP. GEORGE BROWN SITS BEHIND HIS DESK WITH THE cultivated air of a friendly curmudgeon. First elected to Congress in 1972, the 73-year-old California Democrat talks about the CIA with the wizened cynicism of one who has had his share of run-ins with the agency. Several years ago, he was gently booted off the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence when he dared to utter the name of the agency-that-cannot-speak-its-name: the NRO.

"The CIA's been peddling their expertise for some period of time as an answer to a number of civilian problems," says Brown, a physicist who is chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee. "The point is, they're looking for new missions."

Brown flashes a wry smile when he says that the CIA needs a drastic overhaul, including wholesale declassification of much of its archives. For that to happen would require tough oversight by the congressional intelligence committees. And those committees, Brown says, are "scared out of their pants at the possibility of going against the intelligence community."

Perhaps the biggest irony where the CIA's Environmental Task Force is concerned is that scientists may soon be able to avail themselves of satellite technology in the private sector that is every bit as good as the stuff the NRO has.

Looking vaguely like Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men, Brown says that the satellite secrets to jealously guarded by the CIA are secrets no longer in most quarters. While the CIA and the NRO keep their surveillance systems under lock and key, just about everyone else with a couple of rocket scientists to spare is catching up with them. Russia, Europe, Japan, China, and the U.S. Fortune 500 are racing with each other to launch and operate increasingly sophisticated satellite surveillance systems, and they are under no restrictions about releasing the data thus obtained.

"I'm sitting here under a photograph of the Pentagon taken from space with two-meter resolution by a Russian satellite," says Robert Steele, a former CIA officer and Marine Corps intelligence specialist.

Steele says that the technology is out of the bag. "We have a $28 billion cement bunker," he says, citing the intelligence community's annual budget. "Outside the cement bunker, on the information continuum, is a $500 billion-a-year information industry."

THE LIKELY RESULT OF ALL OF THIS IS THAT THE CIA releases some limited amount of data, perhaps in dribs and drabs, and some environmental scientists are happy. But at least a word must be said about the more sinister possibilities. Could it be that the study of the environment by the CIA is not as benign as it sounds?

During the long history of the Cold War, it was not unusual for the CIA to disguise its military intelligence collection as part of an environmental monitoring effort. Before the era of spy planes like the U-2 and satellites, the CIA sent a raft of balloons drifting over the USSR to photograph military sites, and when the Soviets discovered the balloons, Washington said that they were designed to photograph cloud formations. Later, the earliest U-2 squadrons based in London and Turkey were called the first and second "Weather Reconnaissance Squadrons." (And when an airborne missile detection system crashed in New Mexico in 1947, leading many residents to think that an alien spaceship had landed, military authorities claimed the wreckage to have been a weather balloon.)

More importantly, there is a fine line between the collection of innocent environmental data and strategic information that has a vital bearing on another nation's economic and military security. Data about factory outputs, energy use, agricultural production and more has both environmental value and provides critical insights into a nation's fitness for war. And gathering that data could involve the traditional "Spy vs. Spy" agent network.

Former CIA Director Gates didn't quarrel with the notion that CIA spies might be asked to collect information covertly on the environment. "I'll give you a parallel example," he said. "The data that the agency collects on the AIDS pandemic in Africa. Most of those countries do not give accurate data to the World Health Organization. There is a need to have an accurate understanding of just how vast the pandemic is, so we try to get that information."

The idea that the CIA would intensify its effort to collect information on the environment, in part, by stealing secrets from other countries, might give scientists pause--especially those scientists who have to work easily with colleagues from Brazil, China, Egypt and India, for example.

Marvin Ott, a former CIA analyst now at the National War College, agrees that scientists who work with the CIA may find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. "Once you enter into that world you have in fact crossed a threshold. You are now working off types of data that have been collected by means that are not part of the world you've known in the past. You're finding ways to collect data that other governments don't want you to have. That's what the intelligence world is all about," says Ott.

Indeed, at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro summit on the world environment, at least some of this concern was expressed by Third World countries. According to Daniel Turnstall of the World Resources Institute, several Third World nations were unwilling to allow language in the draft document for Rio that might seem to permit the United States to spy on them. "They often tried not to use the word 'monitoring,' because the translated to mean 'surveillance'," he said. "That sounds too much like the intelligence community checking up on them."

ROBERT DREYFUSS is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.
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Author:Dreyfuss, Robert
Date:Feb 1, 1995
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