INSIDE THE C.I.A., SHE BECAME A SPY FOR PLANET EARTH

Linda Zall is disclosing how she toiled anonymously within the intelligence agency to help scientists intensify their studies of a changing planet.

Linda Zall was instrumental in harnessing the power of spy satellites to observe a wide range of environmental ills and change on the Earth’s surface.
Linda Zall was instrumental in harnessing the power of spy satellites to observe a wide range of environmental ills and change on the Earth’s surface.Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

By William J. Broad

  • Published Jan. 5, 2021

Linda Zall played a starring role in American science that led to decades of major advances. But she never described her breakthroughs on television, or had books written about her, or received high scientific honors. One database of scientific publications lists her contributions as consisting of just three papers, with a conspicuous gap running from 1980 to 2020.

The reason is that Dr. Zall’s decades of service to science were done in the secretive warrens of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Now, at 70, she’s telling her story — at least the parts she’s allowed to talk about — and admirers are praising her highly classified struggle to put the nation’s spy satellites onto a radical new job: environmental sleuthing.

“It was fun,” she said of her C.I.A. career. “It was really a lot of fun.”

Dr. Zall’s program, established in 1992, was a kind of wayback machine that looked to as long ago as 1960. In so doing, it provided a new baseline for assessing the pace and scope of planetary change. Ultimately, it led to hundreds of papers, studies and reports — some classified top secret, some public, some by the National Academy of Sciences, the premier scientific advisory group to the federal government. The accumulated riches included up to six decades of prime data on planetary shifts in snowfall and blizzards, sea ice and glaciers.

“None of this would have happened without her,” said Jeffrey K. Harris, who worked with Dr. Zall as director of the National Reconnaissance Office, which runs the nation’s fleet of orbital spies. “You have to decide if you’re going to break down the wall or climb over it, and she did a little bit of both.”

Some of her biggest fans are surviving members of her team of 70 elite scientists whom Dr. Zall recruited to sift through and analyze mountains of images from a secret archive. The storehouse was accumulated mainly as a byproduct of Washington’s spying on adversaries from space as a means of distinguishing threats and propaganda from deadly capabilities.

“She was an amazing leader,” said Michael B. McElroy, a planetary physicist and professor of environmental studies at Harvard. “She had energy and enthusiasm and a wonderful ability to communicate with people” — as well as the tact to handle large egos. “Having this woman from the C.I.A. telling them what to do wasn’t easy. It was amazing to watch her.”

The top-secret images that Dr. Zall succeeded in repurposing for environmental inquiries came from satellites that were some of Washington’s crown jewels. The spy satellites would zero in on such targets as deadly weapons and render images that in some cases were said to be good enough to show a car’s license plate. The first reconnaissance satellite, known as Corona, was launched in 1960. Federal experts have put the overall cost of its hundreds of successors at more than $50 billion.

The Corona spy satellite program involved shooting capsules into space, which would take photos in orbit and fall back to Earth, to be retrieved mid-air.
The Corona spy satellite program involved shooting capsules into space, which would take photos in orbit and fall back to Earth, to be retrieved mid-air.Credit…National Reconnaissance Office
A 1960 photo from the first successful Corona program mission, showing a Soviet airfield near Mys Schmidta in far northeastern Russia, above the Arctic Circle.
A 1960 photo from the first successful Corona program mission, showing a Soviet airfield near Mys Schmidta in far northeastern Russia, above the Arctic Circle.Credit…National Reconnaissance Office

An accident of fate let the fleet assess a top environmental concern — the extent to which vast expanses of Arctic and Antarctic ice were retreating. Many spy satellites orbit on north-south paths that pass close to the poles so that, as the planet turns, the vast majority of Earth’s surface passes beneath their sensors over the course of 24 hours. Thus, their many paths converge near the poles.

Spies had little use for sweeping Arctic and Antarctic images. But they dazzled environmentalists because Earth’s poles were fast becoming hot spots of global warming and melting ice.

“It gave us the first real measurements of the ice budget — how much loss you have from season to season,” said D. James Baker, who directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 1993 to 2001 and served on Dr. Zall’s C.I.A. advisory panel.

In normal science, where collaborators share credit, Dr. Zall might have been listed on papers as a co-author or even a lead author. But not in a twilight zone where science was part open, part secret. For decades, hers was a hidden hand.

Dr. Zall’s environmentalism for the C.I.A. began in 1990 when Vice President Al Gore, then a Democratic senator from Tennessee and now a leading climate-change activist, wrote a letter asking the agency to examine whether the nation’s spy fleet might address environmental riddles. The agency put Dr. Zall onto the question. Quickly, she saw how the nation’s archive of surveillance observations could also serve to strengthen assessments of Earth’s changing environment.

Observing melt ponds developing in Arctic ice in 2009 using declassified satellite images.
Observing melt ponds developing in Arctic ice in 2009 using declassified satellite images.Credit…R. Kwok, N. Untersteiner and L. Zall, Global Fiducials Library/U.S. Geological Survey

“I worked night and day,” Dr. Zall recalled. “I was fascinated.” The secret information, she added, boded well “for all the things I loved.”

The oldest of three children, Linda Susan Zall grew up in North Hornell, N.Y., a village nestled in rolling farmland near the Finger Lakes. Her childhood was spent outdoors raking leaves and speeding through the countryside on sleds and toboggans, bikes and boats.CLIMATE FWD:: Our latest insights about climate change, with answers to your questions and tips on how to help.Sign Up

“I didn’t try to love nature,” Dr. Zall recalled. “I didn’t know anything else.” She lived for snow. “We’d build forts and play in the hills and nearly kill ourselves.”

Her father, the manager of a large dairy, moved his family to Ithaca, N.Y., in the mid-1960s so he could study for a doctorate in food science at Cornell University. She liked what she saw. In 1976, she graduated from Cornell with a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering.

Her mentor at the university, Donald J. Belcher, was a pioneer in applying aerial photography to engineering questions, such as where to build houses and cities. Dr. Belcher was hired by Brazil to pick the best site for its new capital, Brasília.

Dr. Zall in Alaska in 1973.
Dr. Zall in Alaska in 1973.Credit…via Linda Zall

He put his graduate student onto an aerial project in Alaska that sought to assess changes in permafrost — ground that’s usually frozen but in some places was starting to thaw. “I had my face glued to the window,” Dr. Zall said of viewing the continental wilderness during her flight to Fairbanks. “It was mind-blowing. I get goose bumps thinking about it.”

After Cornell, Dr. Zall gained a higher perspective. Civilian surveillance satellites such as Landsat were flying hundreds of miles up to take images of the planet for farmers, geographers and other specialists. From 1975 to 1984, she worked for the Earth Satellite Corporation. Based in Washington, D.C., it used computersto enhance Landsat images, making their details more accessible.

Dr. Zall then vanished into the C.I.A. It was 1985 — a bruising last chapter of the Cold War — and American satellites were playing outsize roles in scrutinizing Moscow. She used her skills to improve the analysis of reconnaissance images and to plan new generations of spy satellites.

In 1989, she took on a new assignment as the C.I.A.’s liaison to the Jasons — a group of elite scientists that advise Washington on military and intelligence matters. Its ranks would eventually supply her with contacts for top environmental scientists.

Then, quite suddenly, in late 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated. Its collapse diminished not only a main threat to Washington but also a top rationale for maintaining a fleet of costly spy satellites.

New uses beckoned. But the prospect of training spy satellites on environmental questions faced vast resistance from the deeply entrenched fiefs of the intelligence world that were built on decades of colossal budgets.

As Mr. Gore pushed, Dr. Zall provided answers. She wrote a highly classified report describing what the secret reconnaissance could do for Earth science. “Spy Satellite Photos May Aid in Global Environment Study,” The Associated Press reported in May 1992. The article made no mention of Dr. Zall.

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