SECRECY NEWS
from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2005, Issue No. 15
February 9, 2005

TWO VIEWS ON PUBLIC ACCESS TO GEOSPATIAL INFORMATION

Are remote sensing data that are collected by the government through satellite and aerial reconnaissance a public resource that should be more fully and openly exploited in the public interest? Or should public access to such information, already limited, be further curtailed in the name of combating terrorism?

Each of these conflicting views informs policy proposals that are now pending in Congress and the executive branch.

Geospatial data that are acquired for scientific and national security purposes "also can have important applications to help meet societal goals," according to a bill introduced in the House of Representatives last month by Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO).

"The full range of applications of remote sensing and other forms of geospatial information to meeting public sector requirements has not been adequately explored or exploited."

Rep. Udall's bill is intended "to encourage the development and integrated use by the public and private sectors of remote sensing and other geospatial information."

See H.R. 426, The Remote Sensing Applications Act of 2005, introduced January 26 and referred to the House Science Committee, here:

In contrast to Rep. Udall, who seeks expanded access to and use of geospatial information, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) is considering a proposal to withdraw various categories of aeronautical information from the public domain (Secrecy News, 11/18/04).

Where Rep. Udall sees the public as a potential "customer" that is fully capable of making productive use of government data, the NGA seems to view public disclosure of such unclassified data first and foremost as a potential threat. It is a fundamental difference in orientation.

NGA was recently asked to reconsider its attitude towards public access in an open letter from Kansas University map librarian Scott R. McEathron.

"I encourage you to think more broadly in your assessment of 'the threat,' and the collaboration that will be necessary to prevail in this 'war on terror'," he wrote to NGA Director Gen. James R. Clapper.

"I urge you to recognize and exploit the informal collaboration that is already happening between government, industry and higher education in the production, analysis and distribution of geospatial intelligence. Withdrawal of information and data products from the public will only serve to cripple these collaborative efforts," Mr. McEathron wrote.

A copy of his January 28 letter to Gen. Clapper, reposted with permission, is here:

The public comment period on the NGA proposal extends through June 30, 2005.


IN CONGRESS

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) yesterday introduced three bills that would amend the USA Patriot Act. The proposals would limit so-called "sneak and peek" searches (S.316); restrict government access to library, bookseller and other records (S. 317); and modify the authority to intercept computer communications (S. 318). See:

A bill to require public disclosure of U.S. firms such as Halliburton that indirectly conduct business with Iran was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). "The bill would require the Treasury Secretary to publish a list of the United States companies whose subsidiaries continue to do energy deals with Iran.... My view is that an informed American public is best equipped to hold these companies accountable." See:

The rules of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence were published in the Congressional Record February 8 and are available here:


NEW FROM CRS

In accordance with congressional direction, the Congressional Research Service does not permit direct public access to CRS publications. But the following new and updated reports were obtained by Secrecy News.

"U.S. Military Operations in the Global War on Terrorism: Afghanistan, Africa, the Philippines, and Colombia," February 4, 2005:

"Protection of Classified Information by Congress: Practices and Proposals," updated January 5, 2005:

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Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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