(UTC-05:00) Eastern Time (US & Canada)

CIA's MEDEA Program: Repurposing National Security Data and Observations to Understanding Global Change

Join us December 10 at 1:00 Eastern time for a discussion led by Dr. Linda Zall, former director of the MEDEA program of the Central Intelligence Agency. Initiated by Senator Al Gore in the early 1990s, MEDEA was the CIA’s collaboration with the scientific community on global climate change.

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Whereas today climate change is always in the headlines, at that time it was obscure, and the CIA had to deal with powerful external advocates and opponents. Over the next 20 years, multiple CIA directors worked with US senators, Vice President Gore, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, top US and Russian military leaders, directors of the National Reconnaissance Office, prominent environmental scientists, and scores of multiple government agency representatives. The efforts culminated in an unprecedented 5 years of cooperation with Russian Intelligence (GRU), even as MEDEA scientists and other environmental scientists with high-level security clearances experienced the clash of cultures between the need to know and the need to tell.

Dr. Zall will discuss her role as director of the MEDEA program and the importance of women in science and engineering. She will then lead a panel highlighting the importance of work conducted by groups unknown to the public that is nonetheless a vibrant and critical part of the engineering community.

Speaker Biography

Linda Zall joined the Earth Satellite Corporation in 1975, using Landsat for groundwater, mineral, oil, and gas exploration. She began working at the CIA in 1985, initially with the JASON program of elite scientists advising Washington on military and intelligence issues and then as director of the MEDEA group (1992–2000, 2008–13). She was instrumental in repurposing spy satellite imagery for monitoring global change, extending the records from 1972 (Landsat) back to 1960, deploying high-resolution reconnaissance satellites to monitor climate change, and working both with the US Navy to declassify GEOSAT altimetry and millions of physical oceanographic observations, and with Russia to release millions of its observations of the Arctic ocean, thus doubling access to the scientific community. She also helped increase awareness in the intelligence community of the national security implications of climate change. She received her PhD in environmental science from Cornell University.


D. James Baker, former under secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere; former NOAA administrator

Rita Colwell, former director, National Science Foundation; Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland at College Park and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health

Jeff Dozier, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara

Darrell Herd, (retired) US Geological Survey (USGS) and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)

Michael McElroy, Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Studies, Harvard University; second chair of MEDEA 

John Orcutt, Distinguished Professor of Geophysics, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Invited Guests

Leon Fuerth, national security advisor to Vice President Gore, with strong involvement in MEDEA

VADM Paul Gaffney II, former president, National Defense University and Monmouth University

Vice President Al Gore


It has not been publicly known or acknowledged that it was MEDEA that put forward the recommendations leading to (i) the first-ever declassification and release to the public of US reconnaissance satellite imagery archives (from the CORONA, LANYARD, and ARGON satellite programs), and (ii) the US Navy’s declassification of huge amounts of its physical oceanographic data for science, including GEOSAT altimetry, two major decisions that extended satellite imagery coverage of global change back to 1960. Following are other highlights:

  • With the US Navy, MEDEA rescued millions of oceanographic and sea ice observations collected by Russia in the Arctic Ocean, more than doubling the data available to science.
  • MEDEA’s initiative tasking US electro-optical reconnaissance satellites to systematically collect images over key areas of the Earth led to the creation of a long-term imagery record of global change (the Global Fiducials Program).
  • In 1991 MEDEA initiated an unprecedented program to task US reconnaissance satellites, guided by the International Arctic Buoy Program, to collect images of a single sea ice floe over the course of a summer, enabling the study of critical physical processes not available anywhere else.
  • MEDEA proved that the Defense Support Program (DSP) missile warning satellite could accurately detect wildfires at a very high spatial resolution.
  • MEDEA was successful in sending, for the first time, wavegliders to the treacherous marginal ice zone of the Beaufort Sea to collect surface ocean temperature measurements. Later, as the intelligence and defense community recognized that climate change was a national security issue, MEDEA scientists were frequently called on to guide this important analysis.

MEDEA’s fate had a strong connection with politics, as different administrations took different approaches. The program was terminated in 2000, brought back in 2008, and finally terminated in 2015. But MEDEA’s agenda was unfinished and, if revived under the current administration, could help with monitoring climate treaties.

Please contact Bridget Scanlon if you have questions.