Their Spy in the Sky

Their Spy in the Sky

The Pentagon's exclusive contract with a satellite imagery company will limit what the public can see.


Warfare American-style has in recent years produced a familiar pas de deux. The United States bombs, the enemy declares that civilians and nonmilitary targets were struck and the Pentagon challenges the account. Occasionally, reporters can trek to the site and try to construct an accurate picture. But in remote locations, that's not always possible. One tool exists that could be useful in resolving these disputes: high-resolution satellite photography. For almost two years, Space Imaging, a commercial US firm, has been selling photos from its Ikonos satellite, which circles the globe at a height of 423 miles and snaps shots of 1-meter resolution. In certain instances, a media outfit, a human rights group or another party could examine an Ikonos image and determine what damage occurred at a particular place. But there's little chance of that happening during the war in Afghanistan, because the Pentagon's National Imagery and Mapping Agency has signed an exclusive deal with Space Imaging that gives the Defense Department control of all the commercially available, high-quality overhead images of Afghanistan.

Under the NIMA contract, the Pentagon, for at least $2 million a month (and perhaps more), has purchased all time that the satellite is over Afghanistan, which means no one else can hire Space Imaging to take pictures of the war zone. And unlike most images obtained by Space Imaging, the photos of Afghanistan captured by Ikonos cannot be sold to any other parties. It's a government takeover of an information source.

Overhead imagery would not necessarily provide quick and easy answers to conflicting accounts about wartime action. "It takes a lot of training and skill to read satellite imagery," says Patrick Eddington, a former analyst at the CIA's National Photographic Interpretation Center. And the 1-meter-resolution shots–which can show car-sized objects–require skilled interpretation, not widely available outside government. But Ikonos photos could assist nongovernment analysts looking to conduct bomb-damage assessments independent of the Pentagon. "If the Taliban claimed a village was hit, and the Pentagon said no such thing happened, commercial imagery conceivably could provide verification one way or another," says John Pike, director of the nonprofit This sort of imagery could offer indications of how successful the United States has been in hitting Taliban facilities.

Refugee and humanitarian groups could use satellite photos in their efforts to assist displaced Afghans. "One of our big issues is how to get food to Afghans and find the people who need it," says Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International and a Pentagon spokesman during the Clinton years. "I just saw a report from the United Nations that there are 229 pockets of displaced people within Afghanistan. If we knew where they were–and we don't–that would make it much easier to arrange ways to get them food. Presumably satellite imagery could help us if the groups of people are big enough. But we would also have to be able to figure out what the images mean." Several humanitarian aid groups have been talking to NIMA about obtaining maps, images and analytic assistance. (At press time, no agreement had been reached.)

The Pentagon does possess several satellites of its own, some of higher resolution. So why buy up the Ikonos images? Though the Pentagon has not officially spelled it out, there are obvious reasons. By training Space Imaging's satellite on lower priority targets, the Pentagon frees its satellites for high-priority shots. The Administration also can use commercial images, which are unclassified, in public or in semiprivate–say, when it shares information with coalition partners–without having to reveal the capabilities of its advanced imaging systems. As for the need for exclusivity, the Pentagon could argue that were it to release images, the enemy would get helpful information and leads on the military's areas of interest. An unidentified NIMA spokesman told Satellite Week, "We didn't do it primarily to censor…. We get that as an additional benefit."

This censorship-by-contract saved the Bush Administration the trouble of invoking what's known as "shutter control." Under the government license that allows Space Imaging to operate the satellite, the government has the power to restrict the images in times of national emergency. If the government had taken this course, it would surely end up in court, challenged by news outlets and others for violating the First Amendment. "With this deal, the government is imposing shutter control without giving me or the newsmedia a legal basis for suing," says Pike.

The NIMA-Space Imaging deal–renewed in early November–has not provoked many howls from the media. Reporters Sans Frontieres did complain that the contract was "a way of disguised censorship aimed at preventing the media from doing their monitoring jobs." But mainstream media executives have been more focused on other Pentagon press restrictions, like the Defense Department's refusal to position reporters with ground troops in Central Asia. "To get images of this resolution is very new," says Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, which has protested the contract. "So they are not missed so much…. And defense reporters may be reluctant to ask about it at briefings, because they don't want to come across as self-serving." Adam Clayton Powell III, outgoing vice president for technology programs at the Freedom Forum, notes that "there's not been a lot of grumbling because not many editors realize what's at stake…. People don't want to take on the Pentagon, and they do not yet understand the value of this resource."

The Pentagon has succeeded in keeping overhead imagery out of the story. (Instead, the public can absorb jittery videophone reports, blurry green night-vision shots and Pentagon-controlled gun-camera video footage that details explosions more than targets.) But the national security establishment may not be able to sustain its position for long. Overseas and domestic competitors are moving to catch up to Space Imaging, and Space Imaging itself is planning to launch two 0.5-meter-resolution satellites in the coming years. These more accurate satellites will grab shots that can be read more easily by nongovernment analysts looking to judge "collateral damage" or evaluate refugee situations. With all these birds in the sky–including several beyond the licensing powers of the US government–the Pentagon will find it tough to control how war is seen from the heavens. For now, though, the sky is indeed the limit, as the Pentagon seeks to wage war free (literally) of oversight.

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