Photo: A now-unclassified CIA spy satellite photo of Arctic ice like the ones shared with climate scientists through the now-revived MEDEA program.
A little-known program run by the CIA that gave a select group of environmental scientists access to classified data during the 1990s has been restarted after being closed for several years by the Bush administration, the New York Times reported Monday.
The data include thousands of high-resolution images taken by spy satellites that scientists couldn't get access to without the program.
The data sharing began in the early '90s and has now been revived in part because of a constellation of officials who were present then and are now back serving in the more environmentally friendly Obama administration. These officials clearly understand that climate change must be considered a potential national security threat.
That list is topped by current CIA Director Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and former Vice President Al Gore -- men who have worked together on issues of national security and the environment for two decades.
His interest in the sea provided Panetta with an introduction to the threat of global warming. "The oceans are the first victim" of climate change, he told me in a 2008 phone interview, and he was quick to see the potentially destabilizing influence of global warming on national security.
Among the original researchers who benefited from the data sharing was climatologist James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies. Hansen was a member of the Environmental Task Force created in October 1992. (It was later renamed the Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis program, or MEDEA.)
Contacted Tuesday by email, Hansen said the program was helpful in "a few instances. ...For example the information that nuclear submarines provided on sea ice thickness in the Arctic Ocean several decades ago, before there were research measurements."
Hansen felt constrained, though, by the restrictions that came along with the information. Like other scientists, the climatologist was allowed to use information, but not disseminate it. Hansen told journalist Robert Dreyfus in 1995 that "I would hope that things do become more open."
Any prospect of a CIA/science glasnost collapsed when President George W. Bush shuttered the program in 2001 for unknown reasons. (As Times' reporter William Broad wrote, diplomatically, in Monday's article, Bush "developed a reputation for opposing many kinds of environmental initiatives.")
While it was operating, MEDEA scientists produced at least a dozen classified reports using agency data to identify wetlands, calculate glacier loss, and predict volcanic eruptions.
University of Washington professor Norbert Untersteiner, a member of the current program, told Broad that the satellite images are "really useful" in his work studying Arctic ice.
In 1992, then-U.S. Sen. Al Gore contacted the individual who President George H.W. Bush had picked to lead the CIA, to discuss the possibility of sharing classified data to help determine the effects of global warming. That man was Robert Gates.
Gates told Robert Dreyfuss that MEDEA "owes its existence to two people: then-Senator Al Gore, whose idea it was, and me, who said yes."
The program continued when Gore became vice president in 1993 with the support of then-CIA Director James Woolsey. Woolsey is an outspoken advocate of energy independence, who has called for a phase-out of oil on national security grounds and was also an early supporter of Gore's call for action on climate change.
In 1994, Gore and Panetta worked closely together when President Bill Clinton named Panetta his chief of staff. Panetta left that post in 1997 and soon became immersed (so to speak) in marine issues, first as head of the Pew Ocean Commission and then as co-chair of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.
Both bodies stressed the importance of fighting climate change to maintain ocean health and regional stability.
The MEDEA program was terminated in 2001 -- when Panetta, Gore and Gates were all outside of government. Gates was brought back as Secretary of Defense under Bush in late 2006, a position he has kept in the Obama administration. That set the stage for MEDEA's return, as well.
BRINGING IT BACK
According to Broad's article in the Times, Al Gore began lobbying California Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2008 for her help in reinstating the MEDEA program. Feinstein became chair of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee in early 2009. Panetta returned to Washington last February when he was tapped by President Obama to lead the CIA.
With Gates at the Pentagon, Panetta at CIA, and Gore lobbying through Congress, the MEDEA program was quietly re-launched. More publicly, the CIA announced in September that it was opening a Center for the Study of Climate Change.
"Decision makers need information and analysis on the effects climate change can have on security," Panetta was quoted in a CIA press release. "The CIA is well positioned to deliver that intelligence."
In mid-December, NPR's Tom Gjelten reported that for the first time, the next Quadrennial Defense Review, an assessment of national security threats published by the Pentagon, would include different worst-case scenarios based on climate change.
And now, with the Times story, comes word that the MEDEA program is operational once again.
Despite disappointment over the United Nations' failure to produce a binding international treaty at the Copenhagen climate summit last month, and regardless of what the United States Senate decides to do about global warming, there is at least movement on the issue in what many would have considered the unlikeliest of places: the Pentagon and the CIA.