WASHINGTON — The CIA normally concerns itself with terrorism and other threats to U.S. security, so the recent revelation that it is routinely monitoring the Arctic’s rapidly shrinking ice cap, and now sharing spy satellite photos with climate-change scientists, caught some by surprise.
The little-known CIA program has been restarted after being shuttered by the George W. Bush administration for several years. The CIA is once again giving a select group of environmental scientists access to classified data about the Arctic, just as it did during the 1990s.
The data include thousands of high-resolution images taken by spy satellites that American scientists couldn’t access without the program. It’s something the Canadian government, incidentally, has been doing for years.
Nonetheless the news has caused Fox News commentators to scoff at the CIA, accusing it of “spying on icebergs instead of terrorists” and therefore failing to “keep Americans safe.”
The ExxonMobil-funded organization National Center for Public Policy Research also objected, saying the program “diverts intelligence assets to climate research.”
But national security experts ranging from Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA, to retired military generals and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are insisting that climate change in the Arctic does indeed pose national security threats to the United States.
“An area that we’re beginning to pay attention to, which is not in the headlines, is the Arctic,” Clinton said in a recent interview with Newsweek magazine.
“With the melting of the ice, with sea lanes opening that were never there before … with five countries ringing the Arctic … With Russia saying that they are going to have an expedition next year to plant their flag on the North Pole. With Canada saying, ’No, you’d better not.’ This is an area that we have to pay real attention to.”
A Canadian Arctic expert agrees.
“What is happening in the Arctic is a transformation the likes of which we have never seen before,” Robert Huebert, an international relations professor at the University of Calgary, said Tuesday.
Indeed, the shrinking ice cap has the potential to profoundly affect geopolitics as Canada and other northern nations try to position themselves to reap enormous economic benefits. Those efforts include increased military presence in the region by the countries involved.
“The fact that we’re starting to see a really substantial military build-up means we’ve got a very, very unsettled situation in the Arctic right now,” Huebert said.
The U.S. National Intelligence Council has said that sea lanes in the Arctic could be free of ice during the summer months as soon as 2013, while also pointing out that Canada and Russia stand to be the world’s big economic winners in the wake of climate change.
But Denmark, the U.S. and Norway are also scrambling to ensure they benefit from improved access to potentially vast energy and mineral resources and shorter maritime shipping routes.
There are already tensions. The United States and Canada scoffed at a Russian submarine expedition three years ago that planted the country’s flag on the seabed under the North Pole.
The U.S. dismissed the Russian move as legally meaningless, while Peter MacKay, Canada’s foreign affairs minister at the time, called the expedition “just a show” and added that Russia could not expect to claim territory under the rules of “the 15th century.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the APEC leaders summit last fall in Singapore, the Russian ambassador to Canada Georgiy Mamedov told The Canadian Press in a recent interview.
“Medvedev assured your prime minister that we have no demands on the Arctic, that we will play by the rules, that we are bound by the same United Nations agreements you are,” Mamedov said.
Mamedov said Russia wants to work with Canada and its partners in the Arctic and put past tensions behind them.
Between them, Canada and Russia account for 75 per cent of the Arctic Ocean’s coastline. Both countries claim the channels between their Arctic islands and northern coasts as “internal waters” where foreign vessels require permission to enter.
The United States scoffs at those claims, insisting the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage are “international straits.”
That’s where a pitched battle looms between Canada and the U.S. in the years to come, Huebert says.
“The Northwest passage is a Mom and apple pie issue for Canada, whereas most Americans have never heard of it,” he said.
“For Canada, the Northwest Passage is as important to us as security issues are to Americans, as important as the right to bear arms is to Americans.”
In the months and years to come, Huebert added, Canada has to prove to the U.S. it can also protect American interests in the Arctic.
“The U.S. will never come out and publicly accept our position … but the more that we work and prove our ability to control the Northwest Passage, the more comfortable the Americans will be with our position,” he said.