Editorial: A Tempest in a Teapot

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  Space News Business

Editorial: A Tempest in a Teapot

posted: 01 June 2007
11:01 am ET










Language in the House version of the National Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 calling for an assessment of the potential impacts of climate change could use some tweaking, but as written it hardly sanctions a misappropriation of resources, as critics have charged.



During floor debate on the bill and in statements since its passage, some House Republicans blasted the measure, saying it would, in the name of political correctness, divert scarce intelligence resources from more-pressing priorities such as nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

Among the more hyperbolic complaints was leveled by Rep. Michael Rogers (R-Mich.), who warned that, in addition to undermining the morale of intelligence analysts, the provision “requires intelligence agencies to use intelligence satellites to monitor environmental issues.”

In fact, the language, both in the bill and the accompanying report, says nothing of the sort. What it calls for is a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the geopolitical and national security implications of climate change. The report says the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which drafted the legislation, “does not anticipate that the Estimate will require the diversion of any collection assets away from other key priorities.”

Even if that language is not convincing to those who are genuinely concerned about the allocation of scarce satellite resources, Mr. Rogers’ suggestion – that it somehow means the opposite of what it actually says – is quite a stretch.

That said, the controversy has raised at least two issues that need clarification. One is whether intelligence satellites potentially can – or should – be used to study the environment. The other is whether it is appropriate for the intelligence community to assess the potential impact of climate change on national security.

The former is a bit of a red herring, perhaps borne of the mistaken assumption that all Earth observing satellites are alike. Granted, it is reasonable to assume that in some instances, spy satellites can be used for environmental purposes such as spotting changes in ground vegetation or soil-moisture that are indicative of climate trends. In fact, U.S. spy satellite data has been routinely archived for environmental purposes under the so-called Global Fiducial program.

In the main, however, reconnaissance and climate-change study are different missions that require their own specialized tools and measurements. Further, the latter typically requires systematic measurements over extended periods, and this simply is not practical with intelligence satellites short of hijacking their missions, which no responsible government would allow. The minimum standard for having spy satellites collect environmental data is a simple one: there should be zero impact on the primary mission.



More relevant to the legislation at hand is the question of whether the intelligence community should be dealing with climate change at all. Some House Republicans, including Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, are opposed to the idea. In a statement issued May 11, Mr. Hoekstra said the community already has more than enough challenges on its plate without delving into global warming. And in dissenting remarks included in the committee’s report, Republicans said bluntly that the intelligence community’s job is to “steal foreign secrets,” which has nothing to do with analyzing climate change data.

The nation’s top spy begs to differ, however.

In a May 9 letter to Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Intelligence subcommittee on intelligence community management, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said it would be “entirely appropriate” for the National Intelligence Council to carry out the study as called for in the House bill.

How could it not be? The intelligence community’s job is to give the president and senior policymakers the information they need to make strategic decisions, for now and for the future.




Global warming is a real, measurable phenomenon that




is going to have geopolitical impacts relevant to these decisions. Climate




directly affects living conditions




like food and water supplies, sea levels, erosion, desertification and the prevalence of disease. Living conditions, in turn, have throughout history been connected to upheavals including mass migrations, wars and, yes, terrorism. And by the way, environment-related assessments such as crop-yield predictions have long been part of the overall intelligence picture presented to U.S. decision makers.

Mr. McConnell did point out, correctly, that intelligence analysts are ill-equipped to study climate change per se; that is, determine its causes, predict its physical effects and their extent, or craft mitigation plans. That, he noted, is the job of climate experts and geophysicists at other agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA.



In his letter, Mr. McConnell said any legislation requiring an NIE on global climate change’s geopolitical impacts should direct these other agencies to provide the underlying predictive data. Given the different legislative jurisdictions involved, the feasibility of including such direction in an intelligence bill is questionable. But his point remains valid. If the climate-change NIE language makes it into the final version of the bill, it should be tailored to ensure that the resulting work assigned to intelligence community analysts is limited to what they




already are trained to do.