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13 October 2008

Actual environmental intelligence in history and practice

Given the escalating emphasis on various forms of weather intelligence that continue to occupy parts of the intelligence community, and the robust debates over the proper role intelligence should play in tracking environmental issues, we think it appropriate to remind those now entering the field of the actual rigors of “doing intelligence” as an activity concerned with matters in the real world itself.

While we remain skeptical regarding the utility of applying modern intelligence resources against the account, particularly in light of far greater and more immediate challenges within the transnational issue space, we have noted with interest new experiments that may identify future value for other long range analysis tasks.

However, we remain convinced that a great deal of interest among the younger analysts we interact with has much to do with the comparatively different lifestyles enjoyed by professionals that current address weather intelligence versus those on more traditional accounts. While serving in the Long War, a young entrant into the field has nothing but austerity and violence to look forward to. Those entering the field with the intent of pursuing environmental issues seem to think they will enjoy the European jet set lifestyle in Rio, Davos, Rome, Bali, and the other classic venues of the green political scene. We seriously doubt that this will be the case for a good many of the junior staffers, who are inevitably destined to be buried in the bowels of major agencies.

A more accurate picture of the life of an intelligence professional covering environmental accounts more closely resembles that of the academic’s research assistant – a particularly challenging fate for those who often lack the fundamental scientific education required to parse complex documents and reams of sensor data. We have already found supporting evidence for this proposition in the historical record. The 1978 NFAC paper we previously discussed very much represents a task typical of the field – interacting with contractor subject matter expert specialists in order to produce dense tomes of questionable value when viewed across the time scale these papers purport to address.

Yet there are a number of accounts addressing issues linked to the environment that remain of current relevance to the intelligence community, and offer the potential for a far more interesting career pathway for those inclined toward such deployments. These include examination of the illicit markets for fish and wildlife, as well as assessment of environmental damage from illicit drug cultivation and production, illegal logging, and foreign industrial activities. Like many other aspects of the intelligence profession, these are not the kinds of products that are always in high demand. But they are certainly fitting projects for an analyst’s own private war, especially if given discretionary time to pursue the kind of intel one would wish to do, vice that which one must immediately answer for.

These intelligence activities - particularly involving forestry, fisheries, and wildlife – nonetheless have a long and often overlooked history of their own, albeit one outside of the traditional boundaries of the IC. Early environmental intelligence was for the most part less concerned with potential damage from human action as much as the effective exploitation of natural resources, and understanding the economic aspects of industries in these areas.

Among the earliest environmental intelligence identified in Canada involved supporting settlement efforts on the frontier as early as 1888, and registration of land use for the government’s records. A contemporaneous text reports that “The office at Winnipeg of the Chief Intelligence Officer, Mr. J. H. Metcalfe, has proved of material assistance in protecting and advancing the interests of newly arrived immigrants, directing them to localities where they may find suitable homesteads, or, if not at once prepared to take up lands, to employers who require their services. The scope of the information in this office accessible to persons intending to make homestead entry will, in a short time, be very largely extended. It is proposed to keep there an accurate record of the position of every quarter section in Manitoba and the North West, so that with the least possible labor and delay, intending settlers may be advised upon arrival at Winnipeg where suitable homesteads may be secured.”

In Newfoundland environmental intelligence supported commercial fisheries, offering at least as early as 1892 a “Bait Intelligence Service”, which was “established for the purpose of informing the captains of vessels engaged in the Bunk Fishery, on touching at any port, where bait was to be obtained, thus saving much time which would otherwise have been spent in searching for bait.”

Intelligence was likewise concerned with the fishing fleets which came to call in such ports. In 1914, it was reported that the existing Fisheries Intelligence Service would be extended to the Pacific coast of the United States. “The Bureau has for many years maintained at Boston and Gloucester, Mass., the two principal fishing ports on the northern Atlantic coast, a service for collecting and diffusing information regarding the extent and condition of the vessel fisheries centering there. In compliance with the recommendations of the Bureau, Congress has authorized a similar service for Seattle, the principal fishing port on the Pacific seaboard, by providing for a local agent. Steps hate been taken to institute this service, but difficulty in securing a properly qualified man has delayed the inauguration of the work.”

By 1917, the Fisheries Intelligence Service was extended to Alaska. However, its mission had changed to a fundamentally commercial intelligence mission, with contemporaneous reporting stating “The Bureau has continued to carry out the wishes of the Legislature of Alaska, as set forth in a memorial asking that the Bureau of Fisheries, in conjunction with the Washington- Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System, arrange to have the prices of fresh fish at Seattle and Ketchikan bulletined every day at the cable office of every town on the Alaska coast where fishing vessels call for the purpose of shipping fish southward and to have once a week the prices of salt fish of the varieties caught in Alaska waters bulletined at the cable offices of the Alaska coast. The War Department, which operates the Washington- Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System, expressed its willingness to receive, transmit, and post bulletins furnished by the Bureau of Fisheries, and early in July, 1917, the service was initiated, the information thus furnished including (1) the forwarding each day, Sundays and holidays excepted, to Juneau, Petersburg, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Sitka, Valdez, Seward, Cordova, and Skagway the noon Seattle prices for fresh halibut, sablefish, and red rockfish: (2) inclusion with the Seattle quotations on Monday of each week the prices of pickled sablefish, salmon, and herring; and (3) the furnishing from Ketchikan of local information, corresponding to that furnished from Seattle, to the other Alaska towns supplied with the Seattle quotations. The purpose of this service is to keep the fishermen of this remote coast in touch with market conditions, so that they may dispose of their catches more profitably, and thereby be induced to increase the production of fish. The service has met with general favor.”

Fish-finding was likewise a key function of these early intelligence activities. Overhead collection missions were first explored following World War I, no doubt leveraging the military reconnaissance experience gained in that conflict. The experiment does not appear initially to have caught on. As reported to the Secretary of Commerce in 1922, “The daily patrols by seaplanes of the Naval Aviation Service of the menhaden fishing areas in Chesapeake Bay and along the coast between Assateague and Bodie Island Lights begun in June, 1920, were continued until October, when the Navy Department abandoned them on the ground that the experiment had fully demonstrated the commercial value of planes in this fishery. This service was very beneficial to the menhaden industry and was the first thorough test of the value of seaplanes in spotting schools of fish. Under the present unsettled conditions in the fish oil and fertilizer industries it is not to be expected that a service of this kind will be established by the fishery interests.”

However, additional experiments were conducted to leverage other, presumably less expensive assets, for similar collection tasks. “The Bureau has obtained the cooperation of the Director of Naval Communications and the Commissioner of Lighthouses whereby reports of the presence of schooling fish are transmitted daily by radio by the keepers of certain New England lightships to shore stations from which they are forwarded to the Bureau's local agent in Boston. This service was begun about November 1, 1920. Reports of schooling fish are forwarded to the Bureau's local agents in Gloucester, Mass., and Portland, Me., by the Boston agent. Lightkeepers have reported the presence of such fish as mackerel, menhaden, and pollock. The subject has not received a sufficient trial to determine its practical value to the industry or the desirability of extending it to include a number of advantageously located lighthouses.”

For those not acquainted with modern maritime industries, the search for productive fishing grounds through overhead imagery continues to this day. Such fish finding intelligence was (and remains) a key product of the commercial satellite imagery industry. Arguably, the success of the current generation of high resolution systems would not have been possible without earlier commercial revenues from these products. The recently operational Geoeye-1, for example, is a descendent of Orbimage’s earlier SeaStar service, which provided imagery products to some 300 commercial fishing clients. The mission was also inextricably linked to current environmental science, as the platform’s sensor take was also sold to NASA and supported an estimated 2200 oceanographers and other researchers.

Fisheries were not the only environmental intelligence of the period. The forestry service likewise required its own intelligence function to support its firefighting mission. A 1920 text describes the position of the intelligence officer, “His duties are to secure information in regard to the behaviour of fires and the progress of control work”. Forestry intelligence positions could also be found overseas, including a position identified in India in 1924.

The geographic scope and field conditions of the forestry service demanded a particular focus on robust communications architectures in order to convey intelligence information in a timely fashion. These architectures included semaphore, code, and telegraph signals. One 1920 author also proposed the use of carrier pigeons, citing their extensively employment in military and naval operations.

The large areas of interest and limited staffing of environmental intelligence also demanded the recruitment of volunteers to augment official efforts. From 1919 to 1921, fish and game enforcement reported that “It has become possible to build up a very considerable volunteer
intelligence service which is steadily extending over the country, and proving of the very greatest value in putting a practical point to patrol work by focusing attention upon centers of violation. In a territory so comprehensive as southern California, and one whose fishing waters and game-fields are so widely separated, something of this sort is an essential preliminary to effective accomplishment.” However, legal issues apparently prevented the more effective employment of the volunteers in a direct role, proving that even in the earliest days of public-private partnerships, no good effort was safe from meddling by ambitious lawyers. “There was a time when deserving volunteers, desirous of aiding directly the enforcement of fish and game conservation laws, could be specially deputized; but all such unsalaried help has now become impossible owing to the Employers' Liability acts which are construed as placing a fair charge against the conservation funds for any injury that might befall even an unsalaried officer, if operating under authority conferred by this Commission. Since no man can waive the rights of enlisted, so far as possible, as informants and cooperators in such other lines as were possible…”

Like many aspects of the intelligence profession over the years, a number of these historical roles are simply no longer the domain of the intelligence community, but rather have been normalized within the civil agencies and privatized in the commercial world. While they may no longer carry the explicit titles of our profession, and no doubt have been changed as significantly by the introduction of new technologies and new organizational forms as any other activity, the core foundations of intelligence tasks no doubt remain present. For this reason, many of these modern functions may merit closer study, with a particular focus on areas of parallel evolution which may offer benefit to the intelligence community as a whole. These functions may also offer potential gainful employment to those students wishing to pursue the environmental account for its own sake.

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