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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

National Public Radio (NPR) Morning Edition (10:00 AM ET) January 25, 2002

Charges of censorship leveled against Pentagon for its purchase of satellite imagery over Afghanistan

BOB EDWARDS, host: Once again, citizens and news organizations can order high-quality images of Afghanistan taken from satellites orbiting overhead. Since October, those photographs have not been available because the Defense Department bought them all for its exclusive use. Critics accuse the Pentagon of checkbook censorship. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES reporting:

When the company Space Imaging launched what amounts to a commercial spy satellite two years ago, the partisans of free and unrestricted information celebrated. 'Finally,' they said, 'the public had its own set of sharp eyes in space. The monopoly on spy satellites, long enjoyed by governments, was broken.' Last year, pictures from that satellite began showing up on television news and in the pages of newspapers. There were pictures of the American spy aircraft that was forced to land in China last spring and of mysterious camps in the mountains of Afghanistan. John Pike from the Washington-based think tank GlobalSecurity.org was an eager consumer of these pictures.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (GlobalSecurity.org): The imagery has brought an entirely new dimension to public understanding of what's going on around the world. Previously, all these places were just dots on a map. Now you're able to see where the buildings are, where the streets are.

CHARLES: But people also wondered, would the US government tolerate the public's eyes in space in wartime? What if media organizations or terrorists used that satellite to learn where US troops were? Christopher Simpson, a professor in the School of Communications at American University, says many people assumed it would be a kind of First Amendment battle; that Space Imaging would try to sell pictures freely and the government would try to stop it.

Professor CHRISTOPHER SIMPSON (School of Communications, American University): The assumption during the policy debate was that the government would take some sort of dramatic steps to shut down access to satellite imagery, either it would literally shoot the satellite down or that it would move with sort of a ham-handed approach in the courts or, for heaven's sakes, send the soldiers into the company headquarters.

CHARLES: But it turned out it didn't need to. In October, as the Pentagon prepared for war, it announced that, for $2 million a month, it had secured the exclusive rights to all new pictures of Afghanistan and the surrounding region. Pentagon officials say they needed these images to help plan military operations. Others say the Pentagon simply wanted to keep the pictures out of anyone else's hands. Space Imaging didn't care one way or the other. Mark Brender is a spokesman for the company.

Mr. MARK BRENDER (Spokesman, Space Imaging): I cannot speak to the motivation or the intent of the military for entering into this contract. For us, it was a solid business transaction, nothing more, nothing less.

CHARLES: The Pentagon decided not to continue the deal in December. Brender says that in recent days, almost all the images of Afghanistan have been made available for sale to the public.

Mr. BRENDER: We are placing most all of the imagery that was once licensed exclusively to the Pentagon into our general commercial archive.

CHARLES: The Pentagon still is keeping a few pictures out of circulation, ones that show the main US base inside Afghanistan, for instance. Even though it's over for now, the episode has dampened some of the enthusiasm that surrounded commercial spy satellites. John Pike from GlobalSecurity.org says it shows that they're not necessarily the public's eyes; they're really private eyes available to the highest bidder.

Mr. PIKE: We're basically in the same situation we've been in with freedom of the press all along; that the press is free for anybody who happens to own a press.

CHARLES: And the company that owns this particular press, this satellite, isn't at all interested in challenging the government. For one thing, says Christopher Simpson of American University, the Defense Department was already Space Imaging's largest customer, even in peacetime. For another, Space Imaging is owned, in part, by Lockheed Martin, the nation's largest defense contractor.

Prof. SIMPSON: At least in this example, the government's desire to censor had a quite willing corporate partner. The issue for the rest of us is whether or not that's in society's best interest.

CHARLES: Simpson, for his part, doesn't think it is. He's hoping that additional satellites and more competition will give the public a more reliable view from space. Two more companies--one American; the other, an American-Israeli joint venture--have satellites in orbit and soon will begin delivering pictures. 'Perhaps,' says Simpson, 'media organizations should get together and invest enough money in such a venture to give them some control over it.' After all, they pay their own photographers on Earth. Why rely on a government-controlled camera in space? Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.

EDWARDS: It's 11 minutes before the hour.

Copyright 2002 National Public Radio