The NSA’s Role in a Climate-Changed World: Spying on Nonprofits, Fishing Boats, and the North Pole

New documents show how U.S. spies gathered intelligence related to environmental conflicts, disasters, and resources

SANYA, CHINA - AUGUST 16: Fishing boats set sail from a harbor to catch fish in the South China Sea on August 16, 2017 in Sanya, Hainan Province of China. About 18,000 fishing boats set sail from Hainan to South China Sea for fishing on Wednesday. (Photo by Luo Yunfei/CHINA NEWS SERVICE/VCG via Getty Images)
Fishing boats set sail from a harbor to catch fish in the South China Sea on August 16, 2017 in Sanya, Hainan Province of China. Photo: Luo Yunfei/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

In the northernmost place in the United States, Point Barrow, Alaska, a National Security Agency collection site has allowed analysts to observe Russia’s military buildup 24/7, as melting Arctic ice opens a new conflict zone. The NSA has also monitored a dispute between India and Pakistan over access to the Indus River system, which is fed by glaciers high in the Himalayas, now shrinking. And as fisheries are facing increasing pressure from seas whose currents and temperatures have already been altered significantly by climate change, the NSA has listened in on phone conversations and monitored the movement of fishing boats engaged in potentially illegal practices that threaten dwindling stocks.

Previously unreleased documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show how the agency has gathered intelligence meant to support U.S. interests related to environmental disasters, conflicts, and resources. In the coming years, greenhouse gas pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels will increase the frequency of ecological crises and conflicts over natural resources. The documents provide a window into the role the United States’s most sprawling international surveillance agency will play in an altered world.

The documents show that although the NSA’s interest in environmental issues is limited, it’s wide-reaching and has grown over the years. Unsurprisingly, the agency is driven not by an imperative to avoid climate-induced ecological crises, but by a need to respond to such crises as they threaten U.S. political and economic interests or explode into violent clashes.

According to the documents, the NSA targets its surveillance at disputes over natural resources, from the dwindling fisheries of the South China Sea to the newly opened shipping channels of the Arctic. It also plays a role in monitoring natural disasters, including by gathering intelligence after an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in 2011. Documents previously reported on show the agency routinely surveils climate talks, giving U.S. negotiators an edge as they avoid committing to the dramatic emissions reductions necessary to avoid the most dire potential effects of climate change. Intelligence is shared not only with diplomats and emergency responders but also with officials from agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department.

The NSA’s eco-spying coincided with repeated findings within the intelligence community that environmental concerns had national security implications. The military has long recognized climate change as a major threat, and over the years, the Defense Department has framed it as a “threat multiplier,” enflaming conflicts by adding to the mix issues like drought, loss of access to drinking water or irrigation, rising sea levels, migration and die-offs of wild game, wildfires, catastrophic storms, and the human displacement that comes with all such issues. A previously published NSA document, dated May 14, 2007, quoted then-Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence James Clapper at an internal NSA conference saying, “Increasingly, the environment is becoming an adversary for us. And I believe that the capabilities and assets of the Intelligence Community are going to be brought to bear increasingly in assessing the environment as an adversary.”

The U.S. intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment, released in February 2018, dedicates a section to the issue of climate change. “The impacts of the long-term trends toward a warming climate, more air pollution, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity are likely to fuel economic and social discontent—and possibly upheaval—through 2018,” the assessment said.

But under President Donald Trump, security officials have sometimes avoided talking about climate change. Neither the Defense Department’s 2018 defense strategy nor the president’s national security strategy highlight the issue as a security threat. Nonetheless, Trump’s military, intelligence, and border agencies are responding to issues whose links to climate change may not be outwardly apparent — from the war in Syria, which has been linked to an earlier drought; to the hurricanes that ravaged Houston and Puerto Rico; to emigration from Central America, where a prolonged period without rain in recent years made agriculture in the region’s Dry Corridor extremely difficult. The documents hint at, but do not fully capture, the potentially vast role of the surveillance state in a climate-changed world.

The NSA declined to comment.

AT SEA - MAY 27:  (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) A Chinese Maritime Police Bureau ship uses water canon to harass a Vietnamese fisheries surveillance force vessel near the disputed Paracel Islands on May 27, 2014 in At Sea. Dozens of Vietnamese and Chinese vessels square off near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.  (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

A Chinese Maritime Police Bureau ship uses water canons to harass a Vietnamese Fisheries Surveillance Force vessel near the disputed Paracel Islands on May 27, 2014, while at sea.

Photo: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Monitoring the Movements of Chinese Fishing Vessels

One particularly vexing environmental challenge for the NSA was the tracking of Chinese commercial fishing boats, which routinely became electronic phantoms, believed to be hundreds or thousands of miles from where they actually were. This was due to a combination of strange errors occurring at hemispheric boundaries in addition to an intricate system of intentional misinformation adopted by the Chinese, according to a 2012 article in SIDtoday, the internal news site of the NSA’s Signals Intelligence Directorate. The boats “are often involved in [Exclusive Economic Zone] incursions and illegal fishing activities,” the document stated.

Indeed, in the South China Sea, a fight over fishing has become a proxy for a broader power struggle among the nations located along its banks. China has laid claim to a wide swath of the sea. Waters it claims as its own overlap with maritime territories claimed by other nations under the U.N.’s system of exclusive economic zones, or EEZs. The territorial conflicts are often framed as being about oil, but perhaps just as important is the sea life that represents a key part of several nations’ economies and diets.

The fisheries of the South China Sea are declining — and are on the brink of collapse, according to scientists. Stocks have shrunk by 70 to 90 percent since the 1950s, largely due to overfishing. This has further incentivized nations that surround the sea to go to battle over the disputed territories. Regulating fishing has become impossible, since accepting another nation’s fishing laws would be accepting its jurisdiction over the territory. Fishermen who can no longer access areas dominated by the Chinese, in nations like the Philippines — a U.S. ally — have increasingly turned to illegal fishing methods. And occasionally, disputes over fishing have exploded into military standoffs.

“Disputes over fishing rights are increasingly becoming flash points for international incidents.”

“As maritime resources are stressed by increased fishing pressures, disputes over fishing rights and violations of EEZ are a growing concern and are increasingly becoming flash points for international incidents,” the SIDtoday article, dated June 27, 2012, said. “Monitoring of the locations and activities of foreign fishing fleets is an important mission of the United States Coast Guard, many of our Second Party partners, as well as being an item of concern for the US State Department.”

Most large maritime vessels use what’s known as the automatic identification system, which lets other ships in the area know where and who they are. “Naturally, it wasn’t surprising to hear our customers’ concerns when a large number of Chinese fishing vessels were observed broadcasting their position 1,000 miles from where they actually were,” the article stated. “Not only did this pose a threat to the safety of navigation for ships operating in proximity to these fishing vessels, it also complicated the monitoring of the EEZ for the United States and our Second Party partners. A combined effort between NSA Colorado and Second Party partners surged on this problem.”

One of the problem’s causes seemed to be accidental — the Chinese boats’ coordinates “would appear to ‘bounce or reflect’ off the equator and the international dateline as the ships continued east or south,” the article said.

So, for example, a boat located on the Pacific coast of South America would appear to be in northern India. Alerted to the problem, China corrected it in 2011, according to the document.

A second problem “was not an error but an intentional ‘misuse’ of the AIS messaging protocol to produce a different (home-grown) coordinate system,” the document said. At least 18 Chinese ships were found to be using an alternative definition of the latitude and longitude system, which threw off their coordinates for everyone else using the standard system. The result: While the Chinese knew where their ships were, neighboring boats did not. “The underlying reason for why the PRC has opted to use this alternate coordinate system for some of their fishing vessels is still unknown,” the article said.

Eavesdropping on Phone Calls to Stop a Stateless Fishing Boat

The NSA has also been involved in policing banned fishing practices used by stateless ships. High seas drift-net fishing involves attaching buoys to the top of a miles-long net that descends into the depths of the ocean. The net is sometimes attached to a ship, but other times is left to float, passively collecting any marine life that comes by, including fish or whales that are not of any commercial interest to the fishermen. The net works by entangling the gills of fish in its fine mesh. The nets are often made of nylon and put in place at night, so that they become invisible to sea life.

Another SIDtoday article, written by a technical director at NSA Hawaii and dated October 16, 2012, indicates the NSA works with the U.S. Coast Guard in chasing down fishing boats that use the destructive fishing method. In September 2011, the Coast Guard caught a large fishing vessel using drift nets 2,600 miles south of Kodiak, Alaska, but the boat’s partner vessel escaped. Seven months later, the NSA picked up a signal from a satellite phone associated with the boat. “It was time to take action,” the document stated.

“An NSA Hawaii linguist listened in on the fishing vessel’s communications for any signs that the crew would resist a boarding operation by the Coast Guard,” the article said. A packet of intel related to the chase was provided by Hawaii analysts to the Coast Guard’s Maritime Intelligence Fusion Center twice a week.

Finally, on July 27, 2012, 700 nautical miles east of Yokosuka, Japan, the Coast Guard boarded the fishing vessel. “The vessel’s crew consisted of 26 Chinese and one Taiwanese, and the vessel claimed to be Indonesian flagged, but after contacting Indonesia the vessel was determined to be stateless,” the document said.

It continued, “While on board the Da Cheng, the boarding team discovered 10 NM of driftnet, 500 kilograms of shark fins, over five tons of shark carcasses, and 30 tons of tuna.” The vessel was turned over to the Chinese Bureau of Fisheries for further investigation.

Laborers walk on a bridge in the backdrop of the 450 MW Baglihar hydro electric project built on the river Chenab, in Chanderkot, about 154 kilometers (96 miles) north of Jammu, India, Friday, Oct. 10, 2008. The construction of the dam, built on the river Chenab, began in 2000 despite protests from Pakistan who fears it will cut crucial water supplies downstream to its key farming region of Punjab. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the dam Friday. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

Laborers walk on a bridge in the backdrop of the 450 MW Baglihar hydroelectric project built on the  Chenab River, in Chanderkot, about 154 kilometers, or 96 miles, north of Jammu, India, Oct. 10, 2008.

Photo: Channi Anand/AP

During a Dam Dispute in India and Pakistan, the NSA Was Watching

It’s not just oceans and seas that the NSA keeps an eye on for aquatic disputes. One of South Asia’s most important sources of water is the Indus River system, which is fed by glacial water high in the Himalayas. One recent study projected that at least a third of Asia’s mountain glaciers will melt away by the end of the century, potentially destabilizing water sources. Changing monsoon patterns will exacerbate the situation.

Access to water has long been a point of tension between India and Pakistan, and disputes are perennial over access to the tributaries, which were divided between the two nations under the Indus Waters Treaty. In the mid-2000s, India’s Baglihar Dam project was a key point of contention. Pakistan claimed it could deprive the nation of water that should be designated for its agricultural sector, which in some areas of the country relies almost exclusively on the Indus system.

The NSA was listening in.

The NSA spied on nongovernmental entities in order to access intel on water conflicts.

A SIDtoday article published March 22, 2006, on World Water Day, noted, “NSA reporting has followed the ongoing tensions surrounding the India-Pakistan Indus Water Treaty and construction of Baglihar Dam, providing our customers with unique information as they monitor this volatile region.”

In fact, the agency had its eye on a number of riparian disputes and predicted a future of increasing water scarcity and conflict. “As competition for water grows among the Nile Basin countries in Africa, analysts continue to report on contentious water extraction projects that could potentially lead to conflict in this area,” wrote the author, an NSA liaison on “economics and global issues.”

The document indicates that the NSA spied on an array of both governmental and nongovernmental entities in order to access intel on water conflicts, stating, “NSA’s broad access to government officials, multilateral organizations, and NGOs has yielded unique perspectives on water availability for internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in Sudan, flooding in Afghanistan, and contaminated water sources in Baghdad.”

And this “broad access” predicted a future where such collection could be increasingly important. “While the world’s population tripled in the 20th century, the use of water resources has grown six-fold. At this rate, more than 2.7 billion people will face severe water shortages by the year 2025 and another 2.5 billion will live in areas where it will be difficult to find sufficient fresh water,” the document said. Signals intelligence “has provided critical insight on issues ranging from inter-state water disputes and food security, to economics and technology sharing, health infrastructure, and natural disasters.”

2827393 04/13/2016 Barneo expedition drift ice camp in the Arctic. Valeriy Melnikov/Sputnik via AP

Barneo expedition drift ice camp in the Arctic, on April 13, 2016.

Photo: Valeriy Melnikov/Sputnik via AP

In the Arctic, a 24/7 Watch on the Russians

In response to climate change, the NSA has increased its northernmost surveillance, an internal document indicates. This past winter, ice cover in the Arctic was the second lowest it’s ever been, after the year before. Sea ice in the summers has shrunk by about 40 percent since the 1980s, and what’s left is much thinner. A 2018 study led by researchers with the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that it would be nearly impossible for temperatures in the Arctic to rise as high as they have without the impact of greenhouse gases.

The result is that new shipping lanes have opened up at the top of the globe. Areas once impassible have become accessible for the transport of goods, movement of military vessels, and exploration of fossil fuels. A 2009 assessment indicated that the Arctic potentially contains 13 percent of the undiscovered oil left in the world, and 30 percent of the remaining natural gas. In response, Russia has built up its military presence dramatically.

Special bases will “be a vital part of NSA’s efforts against the emerging Arctic Intelligence problem.”

Ice melt in the Arctic and increasing competition for hydrocarbons and minerals has forced the U.S. to make the Arctic a higher priority, an NSA technical director at the Alaska Mission Operations Center acknowledged in a SIDtoday article dated November 29, 2011.

For the NSA, Russia’s plans for two new Arctic army brigades and new icebreaker boats were of particular concern. “These plans, along with an increasing Chinese presence and expressed interest in the Arctic, pose a significant intelligence challenge to the United States, Canada, and the other Arctic countries,” the document said.

The NSA “maintains a 24/7 watch over Russian military air activity in the Arctic,” the document added. Using various collection techniques, including intercepts of shortwave radio and foreign satellite transmissions, the NSA monitored for Russian bombers and watched for Russian resupply flights to its Barneo ice station, near the North Pole.

The NSA’s Arctic operation was centered at the time at the Alaska Missions Operations Center on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, but the agency also had a “remote intercept facility” at Point Barrow, Alaska.

The facility, housed at the Air Force’s Long Range Radar Site, included an antenna array, an FRD-13 Pusher — a massive circular antenna, nicknamed an “elephant cage,” used to intercept radio communications — and a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, containing collection equipment. Two personnel were stationed at all times at Point Barrow.

“The facility at Barrow is moving into the future of NSA operations,” the document said, noting that there would soon be upgrades to the Barrow facility, including a wideband radio collection system known as “GLAIVE.”

“The AMOC is uniquely positioned to continue to be a vital part of NSA’s efforts against the emerging Arctic Intelligence problem,” it said.

BEIJING, CHINA - JANUARY 16:  (CHINA OUT) People visit the Tiananmen Square which is shrouded with heavy smog on January 16, 2014 in Beijing, China. Beijing Municipal Government issued a yellow smog alert this morning.  (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

People visit Tiananmen Square, which is shrouded with heavy smog, on Jan. 16, 2014, in Beijing.

Photo: VCG via Getty Images

Climate Change a Growing Priority for the NSA

Previously unreleased documents indicate that climate change increasingly became a topic of interest in the mid-2000s and early 2010s. Climate change is mentioned repeatedly in reports describing the NSA’s priority issues. A secret NSA report describing geopolitical trends for 2011 to 2016, for example, ranked climate change as No. 31 out of 34 priorities (No. 1 was “global energy security”).

To bring analysts up to date on this increasingly urgent issue, the NSA offered various learning opportunities. For example, in advance of the U.N.’s Cancún, Mexico, climate talks in 2010, approximately 50 analysts attended an entire “Climate Change Day,” according to SIDtoday. And in the summer of 2006, the agency held a seminar on the causes and effects of climate change titled “Fire and Ice.” A description says, “Climate change (most likely as a result of global warming) is expected to accelerate at an unprecedented rate over the coming decades and has already been linked to drought and related famine, shifts in precipitation, and the loss of fresh water resources. Extreme weather patterns are a growing threat.” It adds, “Alternative viewpoints will also be addressed.”

More than a decade later, the intelligence community appears less concerned about the validity of alternative viewpoints. The intelligence community’s publicly released 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment notes, “The past 115 years have been the warmest period in the history of modern civilization, and the past few years have been the warmest years on record. Extreme weather events in a warmer world have the potential for greater impacts and can compound with other drivers to raise the risk of humanitarian disasters, conflict, water and food shortages, population migration, labor shortfalls, price shocks, and power outages. Research has not identified indicators of tipping points in climate-linked earth systems, suggesting a possibility of abrupt climate change.”

It underlines that bad air pollution may drive protests in China, India, and Iran. Water scarcity will drive conflicts related to the construction of dams and will complicate agreements around the use of river water. And accelerating biodiversity loss caused by pollution, warming, unsustainable fishing, and acidifying oceans “will jeopardize vital ecosystems that support critical human systems.”

Top photo: Fishing boats set sail from a harbor to catch fish in the South China Sea on Aug. 16, 2017, in Sanya, Hainan Province, China.

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