Some members of the environmental crowd did a little sack dance last week, when the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) endorsed a spy agency study of global warming’s impact on national security.

In a letter written to the House Intelligence Committee, [DNI] Michael McConnell said it was “entirely appropriate” that the intelligence community prepare an assessment of the “geopolitical and security implications of global climate change.”

As The New York Times reported, A provision requiring a national intelligence estimate (NIE) on climate change was in the 2008 intelligence authorization bill that the House passed last Friday. The exact amount of the intel budget is classified, but it is believed to be approximately $48 billion, which would be the largest intelligence authorization ever considered by Congress. House GOP members tried tried to defeat the global warming assessment, saying that intelligence resources were too precious to be used to study the impact of climate change.

As someone who labored in the salt mines of the intelligence community for quite a few years, there are a couple of ways to look at this proposal, and Admiral McConnell’s reaction. First, as the nation’s top intelligence officer, he must consider all potential threats, even if the impact on global warming is far from settled. It’s worth noting that the intelligence community has devoted resources to other “transnational” issues as well; before retirement, I saw quite a few reports on security challenges posed by AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, and spooks of various affiliations spent years chasing UFOs before we concluded (ahem) that they didn’t exist. McConnell’s endorsement of the global warming NIE gets the intel agencies on board now, so if it does turn out to be a security concern (don’t hold your breath, Al), a future DNI can point to the community’s “proactive” stance–and avoid getting slammed for “inattention.”

At a much more cynical level, the community’s support for the assessment is also a textbook example of how the game is played in Washington. I never worked for Admiral McConnell, but by all accounts, he’s one of the sharpest tools in the intelligence shed. As a career intel officer, you don’t advance to Vice-Admiral (three stars) in a Navy run by ship drivers, unless you’ve got something on the stick. McConnell earned his spurs as the Joint Staff J-2 during Operation Desert Storm, and later, as Director of the National Security Agency from 1992-1996. After retiring from active duty, he was a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, the mega contracting and consulting firm, headquartered in McLean, Virginia.

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In other words, McConnell knows exactly how the intel game is played inside The Beltway. He understands that Congress controls his purse strings, and that the legislative branch in under new management. He also knows that the party now in charge (the Democrats) view global warming as the gospel truth. So, if he wants the annual intelligence budget to sail through Congress, it’s not a bad idea to endorse an assessment of their preferred “threat.”

The DNI staff also realizes that global warming could represent a “growth industry” for the intelligence community, which translates into more jobs and more money down the road. Assessing the economic impact of global warming could force the CIA to hire more specialists in that area; the search for more “eco-friendly” weapons systems dictates more staff for DIA (and the armed services), and of course, NSA is going to need a bigger budget (and more resources) to keep track of all the SIGINT related to this problem. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Believe me, I’ve seen it before. In the late 1980s, I was a young intel officer, assigned to the staff at Tactical Air Command Headquarters (now Air Combat Command). With the end of the Cold War came the sobering realization that our old enemy was gone, and with it, the primary justification for a lot of Air Force “iron” on the ramp, and the intelligence systems that supported it. Amid the celebration over the collapse of communism, there was also a lot of searching and trashing for a new threat–something to justify all those new C and D model F-15s and F-16s that the Air Force had just purchased, not to mention all the high-tech stuff that was on the way.

After considerable effort, we finally found The New Threat, something to keep us busy until something better came along. And what was that new security challenge? The War on Drugs. Within months, we had AWACS aircraft and ground-based radar units operating in South America, and Air National Guard (ANG) fighters were sitting alerts in places like Aruba, ready to track drug smuggling aircraft across the Caribbean. True, it wasn’t the Red Hordes across the Fulda Gap, but you’d still be surprised at the number of military “counter-drug” programs that sprang up in the late 80s. The effort lasted until Saddam decided to invade Kuwait, and we had a more conventional threat to deal with.

I never worked for Admiral McConnell, but I believe he has honorable intentions by endorsing the global warming NIE. But rest assured, there are plenty of operators at the staff and agency level who are already looking at this issue in terms of budget, jobs, promotions and future defense contracts. Keep your eye on the assessment that eventually emerges; it won’t be as alarmist as say, “An Inconvenient Truth,” but it will find some validity to the global warming “threat.” That, of course, will mandate more studies, more money and new assignments for the intel community.

It’s how the bureaucratic game is played.

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