The NSA and Climate Change Spying: What We Know So Far

Read time: 5 mins

This is a guest post by Joshua Eaton.

The carbon footprint for the new data center the National Security Agency (NSA) is building in the middle of the Utah desert must be massive. Despite its planned LEED Silver certification, the one-million-square-foot, $2-billion facility will draw 65 megawatts of power and use some 1.7 million gallons of water a day to cool its servers, according to Wired Magazine. When it comes to the NSA, however, many environmentalists have much bigger worries.

To begin with, documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have revealed the agency’s keen interest in the global fossil fuel industry. In November, The New York Times published a 2007 Strategic Mission List from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. One of the missions it lists is “Energy Security,” with a special focus on “threats to production and global distribution” of fossil fuels in “Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran, Russia and Nigeria.”

We now know that the NSA put that directive into practice by spying on the Brazilian oil firm Petrobras, the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy, OPEC, Russian energy companies and the French energy company Total. The Australian Signals Directorate — with which the NSA shares data and facilities — may even have helped an Australian coal company in a trade deal with Japan, though there is no evidence the NSA was involved in that operation.

But the NSA’s surveillance of the fossil fuel industry is just the tip of the iceberg. According to an article in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian last November, NSA and the Australian Signals Directorate used the 2007 UN Climate Change Conference in Bali to spy on Indonesian officials and map out the country’s communications networks. The article was one in a series of reports spread across multiple outlets that disclosed Australia’s surveillance of Indonesia and other Asian countries on behalf of the NSA.

Agency officials have repeatedly said the U.S. only uses its immense surveillance capabilities to monitor serious security threats such as terrorism or weapons proliferation. Among themselves, however, agency analysts admit this operation was a fishing expedition.

The goal of the development effort was to gain a solid understanding of the network structure,” says one internal NSA document quoted by The Guardian, “should collection be required in the event of an emergency.” It is unclear what sort of emergency they anticipated.

A New York Times article published on the same day as The Guardian’s describes the NSA’s surveillance of the 2007 conference as “a major eavesdropping effort.” While neither The Guardian nor the Times mention whether that effort extended to climate negotiations, there are reasons to suspect that it did.

Chief among them is that the NSA and its “second party partners” — the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand — monitored negotiators before and during the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. The Huffington Post and Danish newspaper Informatíon revealed this operation last month.

[L]eaders and negotiating teams from around the world will undoubtedly be engaging in intense last-minute policy formulating,” explains an internal NSA document quoted by the Huffington Post. “[A]t the same time, they will be holding sidebar discussions with their counterparts — details of which are of great interest to our policymakers.”

Much of the 2009 conference centered around the “Danish text,” a draft political agreement that Denmark circulated among a small group of developed nations — outside of the UN process — before it was leaked to The Guardian on the conference’s second day, infuriating developing countries.

But the NSA knew details of the draft well before Denmark shared it with the U.S. delegation — knowledge some negotiators fear made the U.S. reticent to pursue a more ambitious agreement.

They simply sat back, just as we had feared they would if they knew about our document,” one Danish government official told Informatíon. “They made no constructive statements. Obviously, if they had known about our plans since the fall of 2009, it was in their interest to simply wait for our draft proposal to be brought to the table at the summit.”

Diplomatic cables leaked to WikiLeaks in late 2010 show that other U.S. government agencies were also gathering intelligence ahead of the Copenhagen talks. One cable the State Department sent to U.S. embassies around the world, which The Guardian later confirmed was drawn up by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), contains a list of information the intelligence community wanted diplomats to gather on UN officials.

A section of the document on “climate change, energy and environment” requests intelligence on “[c]ountry preparations for the December 2009 Copenhagen UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Meeting,” “[d]evelopments related to other UNFCCC meetings and discussions on a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol,” and “[p]erceptions of key negotiators on U.S. positions in environmental negotiations,” among other issues.

Taken together, these leaks suggest the United States and its allies are engaging in Cold War-era tactics and realpolitik even as the effects of climate change become increasingly dire. The most recent revelations about spying during the Copenhagen climate talks have sparked outrage among many diplomats and environmentalists, and a National Security Council spokesperson told the Huffington Post that President Obama’s new surveillance directive will “ensure that we take into account our security requirements, but also our alliances.”

Still, the next UN conference on climate change is coming up in Lima, Peru, this December. One cannot help but wonder if analysts are already busy getting ready at a LEED Silver building out in the Utah desert.

Image credit: Eavesdropper via Shutterstock

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This should also be seen as a warning to your garden variety grassroots/fringe enviro activists. If you're the type who thinks it's cool to get arresed for protesting in front of the White House or likes to threaten oil sands operators, be afraid… be VERY afraid, Big Brother is watching!

Increasingly the majority of the population (>50%) can be categorized as the opposition.  In Canada Harper, basically defined all opposition to oil pipelines as environmental extremism.  This was an odd stance that instantly polarized the discussions and preobably ruined any chance of getting a pipeline.  The simple fact is that Northern Gateway pipeline stands to loose more jobs in the region in question than it gains.

Heck, in Canada, the utilities hired spies to monitor powerline opposition.

What would an oil and gas lobbiest in charge of the secret services do with such powers?

You don't have to be an extremist to oppose oil and gas Chas.  Oil and gas are unviable industries to date without heavy heavy subsidies.  Oil tankers only carry like $70 million in insurance.  That means I personally will have to pay for any major spill, and I am oppossed to that kind of corporate welfare.  Its just plain wrong unless you're some sort of despot, communist, socialist, or Harper supporter.

This news is kind of interesting. I was wondering why Koch purchased Molex in Chicago. Molex is an electronics manufacturer. It makes antennae for our tablets and smartphones and many of the components that go into telecommunications equipment. Maybe Koch and oil and gas in general can only survive off of government defense and security handouts and minipulated prices. God knows, they can't make it in a free market economy like we saw between the mid 1980s and mid 2000s. 

Nice reporting by the way.