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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

United Press International October 12, 2001

DOD locks up commercial satellite pix

By PAMELA HESS, Pentagon correspondent

The Defense Department has inked an exclusive deal with the only commercial satellite imagery company in America that can provide clear aerial pictures of Afghanistan, blocking access by the media and interest groups to the information and circumventing potential First Amendment lawsuits.

DOD's National Imagery and Mapping Agency signed the agreement Thursday with Space Imaging, effective retroactively to Oct. 7, the first day of air strikes in Afghanistan.

The images from the IKONOS satellite are full color with one-meter resolution, five times better than those available previously. This maneuver creates the first conflict over clear imagery available to the news media from a commercial source. Media outlets had been paying Space Imaging roughly $500 per image.

However, Space Imaging is now prohibited from "distributing, releasing, sharing or providing to any other entity" the images from IKONOS, according to NIMA spokeswoman Joan Mears. Mears refused to detail the terms of the contract other than it is renewable every month.

It is an effective way of restricting the imagery and circumventing a lawsuit from news outlets, charges John Pike, president of Global Security.org, an independent military and national security think tank.

Space Imaging launched IKONOS in September 1999, with a license that granted the U.S. government the right to "shutter control" -- that is to legally prohibit Space Imaging from acquiring or distributing imagery in an area of military operations.

"If they had imposed shutter control, it is entirely possible news organizations would have filed a lawsuit against the government arguing prior restraint censorship," Pike told United Press International on Friday. "This is a very interesting way for the U.S. government to avoid those First Amendment legal issues."

Mark Brender, director of Washington operations of Space Imaging, rejects that interpretation of the agreement. "In our opinion, a large customer that purchases a right to imagery has nothing to do with preventing imagery from getting out to the public and everything to do with a solid business transaction," he said. It is also a way for NIMA to protect operational security in central Asia, where U.S. forces are engaged in their sixth day of strikes in Operation Enduring Freedom, said Mears. Brender pointed out that his imagery is unclassified and therefore easily shared with the shifting anti-terror international coalition without fear of compromising secret U.S. assets and capabilities.

The Bush administration has been tightly controlling information, warning media to "watch what they say," asking media not to rebroadcast messages from the al Qaida organization, and limiting the number of Congress members who will have access to classified information related to the war on terrorism.

Tying up Space Imaging in an exclusive deal is one more link in that chain. "There could be a national security argument for some pictures not being published possibly but national security argument for buying it all up defeats the purpose for having this," said Jeffrey Richelson, senior fellow with the National Security Archives and author of "America's Secret Eyes in Space."

Richelson said Space Imaging made a great business deal for itself in the short run but could "piss off" its peacetime customers. He estimates that it will add about 15 percent to NIMA's imagery files of central Asia, bulwarking the photographs that are produced by the National Reconnaissance Office's "Keyhole" KH-11 satellites, which have even better than one-meter resolution.

The images have only tangential national security value, he said. "I can understand they want to keep the stuff out of the hands of the other side but I don't know how useful photography would be to bin laden or Taliban under these circumstances," he said.

"I think it is important to understand the difference between the secrecy necessary to protect military operations and the control of information that gives the Bush administration the power to do whatever they want to without the people knowing what's being done in their name," Pike said.

Without Space Imaging, "we're not going to get to see a lot of things that are unrelated to protecting the security of American forces but are directly related to the U.S. government controlling public understanding of what's going on over there," he said.

Ann Florini, senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, rejects the more cynical interpretations of the deal. "It's a standard business model," she told United Press International. "It's something Space Imaging has done with corporate clients.

"It's easy to exaggerate the fears of what IKONOS can show. I don't think it is very likely NIMA said they want to make sure the rest of the world doesn't see what Space Imaging has to show -- It's a good business deal for them," she said. NIMA is paying a premium to download images from the satellite quickly; normally they would not be available for weeks or months.

"It's really important when you are talking about commercial available imagery -- this is something that can have military significance but it takes more than (a picture) to get military significance," Florini said. "You have to know what image you want to get, of what specific site -- you have to have collateral intelligence."

Of particular concern is the lack of images of the potential refugee crisis in Afghanistan, according to Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International. No information is available -- other than word of mouth -- that indicates whether vast numbers of refugees are on the road in Afghanistan.

Refugee agencies expect as many as 1.5 million Afghans to flee the country. So far those numbers have not materialized since Oct. 7, the first day of bombing, but there is expected to be a many-day or many-week lag between when they leave home and when they reach a border.

"If there is a refugee crisis in Afghanistan, without this imagery it will be very difficult for the public to know that," Pike said.

The IKONOS satellite flies a north-south orbit, passing over the north and south poles once every 98 minutes 423 miles over Earth, according to Space Imaging's Brender. Depending on the angle its lenses are at, it produces either a one-meter, two-meter or three-meter resolution image of Afghanistan once a day.

One-meter images are clear enough to distinguish between cars and pick-up trucks, Brender said, and give you the ability to count aircraft on a landing strip -- a critical part of targeting and battle damage assessment. The satellite cannot see through clouds or at night. The imagery is downloaded into a ground station in Fairbanks, Alaska, or Karuna, Sweden, or downlinked directly to a 19-meter dish at Space Imaging's Denver headquarters.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.