from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2003, Issue No. 77
September 17, 2003


The commercial satellite imagery industry is poised to reach a remarkable new milestone as vendors seek government permission to launch a commercial imaging satellite with resolution as high as 0.25 meters (ten inches) by the year 2006.

"This is truly spy satellite technology [made public]," said Mark Brender, a vice president at Space Imaging, one of the imagery vendors pursuing such a license. "Beyond one quarter meter, there's not much under the skirt left to look at."

The highest resolution commercial imagery currently available is 0.61 meters (two feet), a threshold that was only achieved in 2001 by Digital Globe's QuickBird satellite.

Applications to acquire 0.25 meter commercial satellite imagery are now pending before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which administers the licensing process on behalf of the U.S. government, including the national security bureaucracy. A decision is expected sometime between now and the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) is significantly increasing its investment in commercial high resolution imagery as a supplement -- or an alternative -- to classified U.S. intelligence satellite imagery.

NIMA recently announced its "NextView" initiative, through which it will acquire a stake in the next generation of commercial imagery satellites. In exchange for a reported $530 million over five years (according to Space News and Inside the Pentagon), NIMA will gain assured access, priority tasking rights, and other privileges.

It is unclear how NIMA's participation will affect access to the imagery by other consumers, such as the news media, non-governmental organizations and foreign governments. It is possible, for example, that imagery acquired for NIMA would go into a restricted archive.

A classified request for proposals for the NextView initiative was issued by NIMA in June, and both Space Imaging and Digital Globe have submitted proposals. An award is said to be imminent. (Next month, NIMA will be renamed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or NGA.)

A descriptive account of NextView, excerpted from the July-August 2003 issue of the NIMA publication Pathfinder, may be found here:

The growing reliance on commercial satellite imagery is one of the few true signs of "transformation" in the defense and intelligence bureaucracies.

The importance of this trend is underscored by a new report from the General Accounting Office which found serious defects in the government's acquisition of spy satellites and other military space programs. The conclusions of the GAO report overlap with those of a similar report on military space from the Defense Science Board (SN, 09/05/03).

See "Defense Acquisitions: Improvements Needed in Space Systems Acquisition Management Policy," U.S. General Accounting Office, September 2003:


The recent report from the U.S. Department of Defense on "Military Power of the People's Republic of China" was full of "exaggeration" and "innuendo" and it "misrepresents China's strategic goals and defense policy."

That is the judgment of a Chinese reviewer writing in the Beijing newspaper Jiefangjun Bao (and reprinted in the People's Liberation Army Daily) earlier this month. See:


A full account of the official misrepresentations surrounding the U.S. war in Iraq has yet to be compiled, but Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet must assume personal responsibility for some of them, argue the authors of a lengthy indictment in The New Republic.

"At a moment when many in the CIA, probably including Tenet, had their doubts about the factual premises of the Iraq war, Tenet compromised his agency's mandate to 'deliver intelligence that is clear and objective'," write Spencer Ackerman and John B. Judis. "The CIA -- and the nation -- will suffer the consequences for a long time."

See "The Operator: George Tenet Undermines the CIA," The New Republic, September 22:


The question of whether Bush Administration officials violated the law to disclose that the wife of an Administration critic was an undercover CIA officer surfaced again at a White House press briefing on September 16. (It's "totally ridiculous," the White House said.)

The story is reviewed and updated by Timothy Noah in "Did Rove Blow a Spook's Cover? The White House won't say,", September 16:


Area 51, the famous secret Air Force base near Groom Lake, Nevada, will remain exempt for at least another year from any environmental laws that would require public disclosure of hazardous waste disposal practices or nearly anything else.

Environmental practices at the secret base had been the subject of litigation in the 1990s by workers who claimed they were injured by unregulated open pit burning of hazardous materials. The litigation was blocked when the government declared that national security concerns precluded judicial review of the merits of the case.

President Bush renewed the secret base's exemption for one more year in a September 16 memorandum to the EPA Administrator. See:


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

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