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Sequestering American intelligence: From the NSA to the NSF

Pouring money into NSA operations while making serious cuts in scientific research undermines US national security.

Last Modified: 07 Nov 2013 10:03
Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
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Recent studies point to climate change as the biggest security risk [AFP]

It's fitting that Barack Obama's Administration would declare its continued intention to try whistle-blower Edward Snowden at the same time as a leaked UN report- authored by leading climate scientists and Nobel Peace Prize winnters- has confirmed what the US intelligence bureaucracy had already predicted almost 20 years ago. That being; without a radical change in the global political economy, the 21st century will be witness, not merely to increasing environmental degradation, but also to heightened violence, conflict as well as poverty.

That is not, however, the main significance of the intersection of the Snowden and climate change stories. Rather, it's the on-going, deliberate failure of the US intelligence and security establishment - whether directed by its government customers or acting on "autopilot" - to perform in a manner that actually increases the security of the United States, never mind the "intelligence" of the policy-makers whom the Agency and the rest of the intelligence bureaucracy are supposed to serve, that is the most glaring result of their juxtaposition.

However self-generated may be the NSA's excesses or due to lax oversight, the reality remains that the NSA and its sister agencies exist to provide intelligence, strategic and operational information - and increasingly, to act operationally themselves - on behalf of the president and the political, diplomatic and military chain of command that begins with him.

And this is where the climate change report becomes so frightening. While the NSA is spending tens of billions of dollars ostensibly to vacuum up every possible bit of information that could help catch (would-be) terrorists, almost nowhere in the mainstream debate over the constitutional, moral and diplomatic consequences of doing so, has anyone suggested that rather than trying to know everything about everyone, that the US spend its time figuring out how to change the policies that have made it so (seemingly) necessary to know everything about everyone.

A violent, poor and sick future

The leaked climate change report, titled Climate Change 2014, Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, certainly is worthy of consideration by the US intelligence establishment, as its conclusions describe clear and systematic threats to the security of Americans and the world more broadly. Based on a "substantially larger base of relevant scientific, technical and socioeconomic literature" than has scientists have previously had at their disposal, it offers a "comprehensive assessment" of the threats posed by unchecked climate change and the environmental changes that accompany it. (For a rebuttal of the claim that the new report in fact discounts the human role in climate change see this article.

But while the NSA's budget is in no danger of facing even modest cuts in the near future, the US government's investment in research in precisely the areas that could help address the challenges described by the intelligence bureaucracy, is dwindling more each year.

As the draft explains, climate change "indirectly increases risks from violent conflict in the form of civil war, inter-group violence and violent protests by exacerbating well-established drivers such as poverty and economic shock". Moreover, "throughout the 21st century, climate change impacts will slow down economic growth and poverty reduction, further erode food security and trigger new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger."

Defining"national interest"

While the NSA is busy spending enormous sums of money to scoop up the conversations of heads of state and itinerant traders, the US government is cutting spending even more on research that could help alleviate the problems highlighted by the climate report, while pursuing policies that exacerbate the problems.

The set of policy choices to prevent the kind of future envisioned by the climate change report is pretty clear, and go much deeper than the obvious need to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels that is the primary cause of global warming.

They involve focusing much less on continued high levels of economic growth, and much more on achieving an equitable and sustainable distribution of core global resources and wealth so that the billions of people, who have little hope of prospering in a growth-addicted world with dwindling capacity to sustain or heal itself, don't feel completely alienated from the system and thus have little to lose by attempting to destabilise it.

Of course, figuring out how to accomplish such a monumental task will demand streams of new research by scholars from across the hard and social sciences, and other disciplines, in order to understand not only how to develop sustainable post-growth global and local economies, but how to address the profound cultural and political changes such a transformation would entail.

NSA vs NIH budgets

But while the NSA's budget is in no danger of facing even modest cuts in the near future, the US government's investment in research in precisely the areas that could help address the challenges described by the intelligence bureaucracy, is dwindling more each year, thanks to a long-term decrease in spending on public infrastructure that is exacerbated by the "new normal" budget scenario of sequestration, which is wreaking havoc with the money available for most types of scholarly inquiry.

This includes serious cuts to scientific research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), which are becoming significant enough so that growing numbers of scientists are considering leaving the US for overseas, in order to escape the "slowly growing cancer" of ever-deeper cuts in basic and applied science research. While private funding in areas like malaria or HIV might make up the difference, the vast majority of areas of research in the physical and medical sciences are facing cuts that are forcing scientists to fire staff, alter projects and even redirect graduate students to other career trajectories.

While "China pours billions of dollars into medical and scientific research", as one senior colleague lamented, the NIH and NSF are losing up to $3bn per year in funding. Thousands fewer grants are approved, and those that are, often grapple with smaller awards and/or shorter funding cycles. Meanwhile, each month, the NSA expands its capabilities towards achieving "total information awareness", even as it remains officially unaware of the consequences of the policies supported by the information it provides.

Crisis in academia?

The situation for research into the social sciences is even more dire, as Congressional Republicans have forced a litmus test to be imposed on all funding for political sciences research that would broadly restrict future research to subjects that can be "certified" as "promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States".

The National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which sponsor precisely the kinds of research that would elucidate how societies can grapple with the existential problems before them, are facing cuts of over 50 percent to their grant-making programs, which has led the NSF to scrap funding for basic research into how the government functions and making it that much harder to study the ecological, environmental, social, economic, cultural and political consequences of the policies both the US intelligence community and the climate change report agree will cause ever greater destabilisation of societies around the world.

If anything could be said to sum up this dynamic, it's the fact that university presidents are so desperate to avoid greater cuts that they are joining forces with the defence industry to attempt to convince Congressional Republicans that the permanentisation of the sequester cuts will, in fact, harm the national interest far more than funding for seemingly frivolous things like the study of desertification, political negotiations in parliamentary systems, and cancer research.

But with the NSA so busy spying on everyone and everything and the CIA busy piloting drones and devising schemes to use anti-polio campaigns as a ruse to collect the DNA of wanted terrorists (thereby ensuring the deaths not only of innumerable children who won't get the vaccine once the ruse is discovered, but of healthcare workers who still dare to continue vaccinating them), who's left in the intelligence community to consider just how damaging all these policies have become to the security of the United States, never mind the world more broadly? 

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and  distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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