- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

The Defense Department has signed an exclusive deal with the only commercial satellite-imagery company in America that can provide clear aerial pictures of Afghanistan, blocking access by the media and interest groups to the information and circumventing potential First Amendment lawsuits.
Defense's National Imagery and Mapping Agency signed the agreement Thursday with Space Imaging, effective retroactively to Oct. 7, the first day of air strikes in Afghanistan.
The images from the IKONOS satellite are full color with 1-meter resolution, five times better than those available previously. This maneuver creates the first conflict over clear imagery available to the news media from a commercial source. Media outlets had been paying Space Imaging roughly $500 per image.
However, Space Imaging is now prohibited from "distributing, releasing, sharing or providing to any other entity" the images from IKONOS, according to NIMA spokeswoman Joan Mears. Miss Mears refused to detail the terms of the contract other than it is renewable every month.
It is an effective way of restricting the imagery and circumventing a lawsuit from news outlets, charges John Pike, president of Global Security.org, an independent military and national-security think tank.
Space Imaging launched IKONOS in September 1999, with a license that granted the U.S. government the right to "shutter control" that is to legally prohibit Space Imaging from acquiring or distributing imagery in an area of military operations.
"If they had imposed shutter control, it is entirely possible news organizations would have filed a lawsuit against the government arguing prior-restraint censorship," Mr. Pike told United Press International. "This is a very interesting way for the U.S. government to avoid those First Amendment legal issues."
Mark Brender, director of Washington operations of Space Imaging, rejects that interpretation of the agreement. "In our opinion, a large customer that purchases a right to imagery has nothing to do with preventing imagery from getting out to the public and everything to do with a solid business transaction," he said.
It is also a way for NIMA to protect operational security in Central Asia, where U.S. forces are engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom, said Miss Mears.
"There could be a national-security argument for some pictures not being published possibly, but [the] national-security argument for buying it all up defeats the purpose for having this," said Jeffrey Richelson, senior fellow with the National Security Archives and author of "America's Secret Eyes in Space." Mr. Richelson said Space Imaging made a great business deal for itself in the short run, but could annoy its peacetime customers. He estimates that it will add about 15 percent to NIMA's imagery files of Central Asia, bulwarking the photographs that are produced by the National Reconnaissance Office's "Keyhole" KH-11 satellites, which have even better than 1-meter resolution.
"I think it is important to understand the difference between the secrecy necessary to protect military operations and the control of information that gives the Bush administration the power to do whatever they want to without the people knowing what's being done in their name," Mr. Pike said. Without Space Imaging, "we're not going to get to see a lot of things that are unrelated to protecting the security of American forces, but are directly related to the U.S. government controlling public understanding of what's going on over there."
Ann Florini, senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, rejects the more cynical interpretations of the deal. "It's a standard business model," she told United Press International. NIMA is paying a premium to download images from the satellite quickly; normally, they would not be available for weeks or months.
Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International, expressed concern that the deal could mean a lack of images of the potential refugee crisis in Afghanistan. No information is available other than word of mouth that indicates whether vast numbers of refugees are on the road in Afghanistan.
Refugee agencies expect as many as 1.5 million Afghans to flee the country in the wake of the initial Oct. 7 bombing. So far those numbers have not materialized, but there is expected to be a time lag, perhaps of many weeks, between when refugees leave home and when they reach a border. "If there is a refugee crisis in Afghanistan, without this imagery it will be very difficult for the public to know that," Mr. Pike said.

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