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[] NYT 19.10.01: Pentagon Corners Output Of Special Afghan Images,
New York Times
October 19, 2001

Pentagon Corners Output Of Special Afghan Images

By Michael R. Gordon

WASHINGTON, Oct. 18 ? Once, the Pentagon and the press fought over coverage on the ground. Now their struggle has moved to space.

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency, an arm of the Defense Department, has bought all of the rights to pictures of Afghanistan taken by the world's best commercial imaging satellite. That move opens a new front in the split between government secrecy and news media that try to use satellites to report military conflicts.

Officials at the imagery agency said today that it had signed a contract with Space Imaging Inc., a privately held company in Thornton, Colo., to buy the entire capacity of the satellite to take pictures of Afghanistan and nearby countries.

The purchase is needed to support the American military operation in Afghanistan and to supplement government spy satellites, agency officials said. The Ikonos satellite owned by Space Imaging is the sole commercial satellite that gathers high- resolution images and can discern objects as small as one square meter.

The Pentagon contract, concluded on Oct. 7, also means that news media and other organizations outside government will not be able to obtain independently their own high-resolution satellite images of the Afghanistan region.

In addition, the contract effectively allows the Pentagon to keep the images it bought out of the public eye forever. None can be released without Defense Department approval.

The old disputes between the military and news media centered on access for the media pool. The new dispute is about access to images collected in the nonsovereign territory of space.

The Pentagon has also taken a more subtle approach to the fight. Under the law, the Bush administration could have blocked news media's access to the satellite on national security grounds by invoking a never-used provision, "shutter control." Such a move would have quite likely set off legal challenges and heated protests. Instead, the Pentagon achieved its desired result through its contract.

Under the agreement, Space Imaging will receive $1.9 million a month for the access. The Pentagon has also agreed to pay $20 a square kilometer for the images it actually purchases and agreed that no order will be for less than 10,000 square kilometers. The agreement expires on Nov. 5. It can be renewed monthly.

Other commercial imaging satellites are operated by the Israelis, the French and the Indians, but they lack the high resolution of Ikonos.

Another American company, DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., the former EarthWatch Inc., launched a satellite today that has even higher resolution than the Ikonos. But that satellite, Quickbird, will not provide images before February. The Pentagon has already expressed interest in that material.

A DigitalGlobe spokesman said it would not object to selling the entire capacity for the Afghanistan area to the United States government.

"Ikonos is the only game in town for commercial high-resolution imagery," Jeffrey T. Richelson, an expert on space reconnaissance systems, said. "If the media wants to obtain access to high-resolution imagery of Afghanistan, it will be totally dependent on the government's willingness to release it."

The government is the top customer for Space Imaging. The company said it was principally motivated by financial concerns. "For us," its executive director for government affairs, Mark Brender, said, "it is a sound business transaction that brings a lot of value to the government."

With the approval of the Pentagon, Space Imaging today offered to sell the news media for $500 two images gathered by its satellite, of the airport near Kandahar, before and after it was bombed. The company is taking order for other Afghan images, but cannot sell them without the Pentagon's blessing.

A news producer for a major television network said the arrangement was far too constraining.

Newspapers and broadcast news agencies use satellite images to enhance their coverage, especially from regions where they have no access. Images of fleeing refugees, for example, can help document the scale of the suffering caused by war.

Pentagon officials familiar with the unusual contract said the goal was not to interfere with news coverage but to gather material for military planning and ensure secrecy.

Thomas Hennig of the imaging agency said the satellite technology would be useful to prepare maps for the military and battlefield computer simulations. Because the images are technically unclassified, they can be shown to allies and nongovernmental agencies.

Under most contracts with Space Imaging, the images a customer buys are later archived and sold again to others. But the Pentagon paid a premium to secure the rights to the images in perpetuity, a step that Pentagon officials say was taken to prevent adversaries from learning what the Pentagon was interested in looking at. Groups that advocate press freedom, however, said the contract amounted to virtual censorship. The critics said procedures could have been worked out to provide the news media with access to the Ikonos satellite while safeguarding legitimate secrets.

"There are First Amendment implications here," Adam Clayton Powell III, vice president of the Freedom Forum, said. " This sets a precedent for the government to buy up all of the capability of a technology that can be used for independent verification and basic reporting."

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