Los Angeles Times Saturday, January 15, 2000

Sale to Public of Satellite Photos Debated

By BOB DROGIN, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON--Ever since the John F. Kennedy administration launched the world's first spy satellite, only senior U.S. military officials and policymakers have been allowed to view high-altitude, high-resolution images of everything from Soviet bombers to Serb tanks.

Now the public is getting its chance, and some policy analysts say that's cause for concern.

Space Imaging, a private company based in Denver, made history this month by distributing the first high-resolution satellite images of a North Korean ballistic missile site. The company soon will offer similar snapshots of China, Iran, Iraq and almost anywhere else on Earth to nearly anyone with a credit card.

The company says that its Ikonos satellite can provide distinct photographic images of objects as small as 32 inches across, a clarity far sharper than anything publicly available before. They say that such detail will change the way Americans plant crops, write insurance and zone shopping malls, as well as monitor disasters, track pollution and watch foreign armies.

But critics warn that dictators, rogue regimes and terrorists also may benefit. No law prevents commercial satellites from photographing U.S. military bases and other sensitive facilities, for example. And while the federal government has the right to shutter private U.S. satellites in event of war or other national crises, the policy remains untested.

For now, a new space race has begun. Under a 1994 White House directive, the Commerce Department has licensed 12 U.S. companies to operate remote-sensing satellites. Space Imaging was the first aloft, but at least two other U.S. companies say they will launch satellites this year. Several foreign companies also are reaching for the stars.

"There could well be a dozen or so of these satellites in orbit over the next few years," said Ann Florini, resident associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "It's going to get a lot harder to hide."

Civilian satellite pictures are not new, of course. Images from the government's Landsat satellite have been sold to the public since 1972. But the first Landsat was unable to render distinct images of objects smaller than 250 feet across. It showed continents and oceans, not buildings and cars.

Subsequent satellites from French, Indian and Russian companies, and from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, brought the scale down to 90 feet, 60 feet, 30 feet and finally 6 feet. But the images usually were old, extremely limited in scope and could take weeks or months to obtain.

Ikonos was launched in September from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The satellite orbits the Earth 14 times a day, 400 miles high, passing the same point at the same time every three days. Digital U.S. images cost at least $1,000; overseas shots go for $2,000. Delivery is promised within hours.

"You can count the cars in a parking lot," said Mark Brender, a Space Imaging spokesman. "And you can tell the difference between a car and a truck. You cannot read license plates. You cannot see who's driving the car. And you cannot tell the type or model. You can see individual trees but not recognize people."

That's good enough that the federal government is likely to be the biggest customer. The Clinton administration has proposed spending $1 billion over the next six years on commercial satellite infrastructure, imagery and services.

"It will give us a greater smorgasbord of things to pick from," said Eric Berryman, spokesman for the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the intelligence service responsible for analyzing satellite photos and making military maps.

"I guess we feel the more the merrier," agreed Rick Oborn, spokesman for the National Reconnaissance Office, the blandly named agency that designs, builds and operates America's spy satellites. The NRO was not always so welcoming. Its very existence was classified until 1992.

"We figure the commercial images can help cover the lower end of the need," Oborn added. "What we do is of so much a finer quality and is to meet specific needs, whether for national intelligence or for military operators in the field. So there's not a competition here. It's very much to the benefit of all."

The Pentagon agrees. Unlike classified spy satellite photos, the military can quickly distribute commercial satellite images to troops and allies, a potential boon for both training and combat. Analysts thus could use public images to discern tanks from jeeps, and fighter planes from bombers, as well as the next hilltop.

Nongovernmental organizations, including disaster relief groups, also are excited. For the first time, humanitarian agencies will be able to track distant refugee groups, for example. "We can't give classified spy photographs to a bunch of French doctors," said one U.S. official. "Now they can get their own."

But some critics are nervous. Because of security concerns, Congress voted in 1996 to prohibit any U.S. company from selling satellite images of Israel showing objects smaller than 6 feet across. In addition, no image may be sold to a terrorist state or any regime under U.S. or international sanctions. Otherwise anyone may order satellite pictures taken of any place on Earth.

David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security, a nonprofit Washington think tank, fears that the few bans on sales of satellite photos are futile given the Internet and other means of spreading information.

"These kind of attempts to control access to satellite imagery are very, very difficult," he said. "How do they know who's buying? How do they know where it goes? I don't believe they'll succeed."

John C. Baker, a policy analyst at the Santa Monica-based Rand Corp. think tank, sees another risk. "I'm concerned that, while we may use the imagery to help nongovernmental groups in a crisis situation like Kosovo, it's also easy to imagine the other side using the same images to drive [ethnic cleansing] operations."

Moreover, interpretation of satellite photos is an inexact science at best. Some images are likely to spark as many arguments as they settle.

"You and I could look at the same pictures and see very different things in it," said professor Ray Williamson of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

The images of North Korea's Nodong missile site are a case in point. The photos first were shown on Jan. 3 on a Cable News Network broadcast. They next appeared in Japanese newspapers and then were posted on the Federation of American Scientists' Web site. They immediately became political fodder in the battle over national missile defense.

John E. Pike, head of space policy at the federation, said that the images showed "an underwhelming missile test facility" most notable for its lack of paved roads, storage facilities or staff housing.

"If we're worried about North Korea attacking us, this won't do it," Pike said. "The missile will get stuck in the mud before it gets to the launch pad. The dirt road goes through a rice paddy."

But Frank Gaffney Jr., a former assistant secretary of Defense who now heads the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think tank in Washington, assailed Pike's interpretation as "preposterous."

"Did they expect Cape Canaveral?" he asked. "This is a country that can't feed its people yet is pouring money into [its] missile program. The fact the roads aren't paved misses the point that [North Korea] has tested a missile at sufficient range to cause us to believe it could deliver a weapon of mass destruction to our shores. That's all that matters."

Gaffney said that "all the bad guys around the world" will find uses for the commercial satellite photos. "We're entering a brave new world that I think will cause us grief and not just in wartime."

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times