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Know Nothing or Say Nothing?

October 12, 2011

Last week I managed to offend more than a few people when I questioned conservative orthodoxy and tested the boundaries of what passes for homeland security. This week I’m looking to finish what I started. (Thanks for inspiring me, Steve Jobs!)

In comments on his own post the day before I posted last week, which mentioned Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Together Movement, Chris Bellavita recounted the story of a colleague compiling a risk assessment who was denied access to source material to support the value of a key variable he was furnished by a federal official with access to classified information. The colleague too had appropriate clearances and expressed a need to know the information, but was nevertheless denied access.

This all-too-common situation has become so endemic to the homeland security enterprise that I’m left wondering whether secrecy itself is the real existential threat to our national interest. Indeed, it is becoming harder all the time to know whether anyone in te federal government knows anything at all.

Case in point: The CIA’s climate change initiative. Despite a very public opening for the Center on Climate Change and National Security, its work is reportedly classified. The center opened a year ago with some fanfare as well as skepticism about its focus, and was steeped in controversy from the start. Now, with calls for belt-tightening in Washington, DC reaching a fever pitch it seems the center’s continued funding is now uncertain.

Most of the world does not consider the reality of climate change much of a secret. Likewise, others outside the U.S. do not consider the persistent denial of this phenomena (or its consequences) that arises in certain quarters of our body-politic all that surprising. What does cause many of these observers and potential partners real concern are real questions about a) whether the world can avert disaster without U.S. leadership – not just participation – in efforts to curb human contributions to resource depletion and carbon emissions and b) whether the United States’ toxic political dynamic climate will accelerate the collapse of the economic and social systems upon which many other developed and developing nations rely for their survival before we can identify strategies to ensure the survival of human society.

I doubt very much that the CIA is withholding information about the environmental impacts widely reported by other sources. They are almost certainly reluctant to release imagery that confirms these effects because it could compromise details about the technology used to collect the information. If that was the whole story most people could probably understand what’s going on here. Somehow I suspect there is a lot more to it though.

Most reasonably intelligent people who have given serious thought to the twin problems of resource depletion (especially non-renewable energy sources) and carbon emissions have concluded that the world has a limited window of opportunity to rescue itself from inevitable and irreversible adverse consequences of expansive scope and massive scale. This window of time leaves almost no time for dithering or doubt.

Many, if not most, of the technological solutions that would allow existing patterns of consumption to continue require massive energy inputs themselves for successful development, deployment and delivery – think about the large amounts of electrical energy required to produce concrete for nuclear reactor shielding or glass for solar panels. Conservation alone will not produce sufficient savings unless we are prepared to completely redefine contemporary expectations of comfort and convenience.

The financial meltdown plaguing our economy and threatening to collapse the Eurozone economies has curbed consumption, but not nearly enough to abate growing hazards to our way of life. The stakes for our nation are big for sure. But the stakes for humanity in general might well be a matter of life and death.

Supposedly, we reserve top secret classification of information for situations that pose extremely grave danger to national interests if those who pose a threat to the United States were to possess it. Applying this test to the issues arising from resource scarcity and the effects of climate change on the country suggest the national security policy priority is focused squarely on maintaining uninterrupted supply and consumption according to current patterns.

In the absence of cooperation with others facing these same threats, we face a future all but certainly plagued by conflicts and catastrophes of greater frequency and intensity than ever before experienced. At a minimum, we all face a scary ride as we accelerate down the steep and slippery slopes of peak oil, peak gas and peak coal – for that matter peak everything.

You don’t need a top secret/SCI clearance to know climate change poses enormous risks to not just the United States but to human survival itself. But if you do have the clearance and the need to know what the CIA does, you might have a very big vested interest in keeping that secret – open or not – to yourself.

In the current climate in Washington, DC, the most salient danger facing most federal civil servants is the risk of personal social and economic collapse attending massive disruptions to the political environment that supports and sustains their jobs.

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