Foreign quest for U.S. spy satellites fuels debate

November 23, 1992|By New York Times News Service

At least three countries are seeking to buy spy satellites in the United States. The requests, government experts say, have set off a high-level rift and a policy review within the government that will probably have to be resolved by the Clinton White House.

It is a watershed, analysts say, that the government is even considering permits to sell such high-tech surveillance craft, which can cost a billion dollars and have been cloaked in the highest secrecy ever since their debut 32 years ago. Several people are now in jail just because they leaked information about such satellites or data gathered by them.

Orbiting high above the earth, the cameras can take pictures of objects on the ground that are of enormous interest to military planners, revealing, for example, the size and location of tanks, troops, ships, missiles and aircraft.

The use of such imagery, experts say, can aid or deter war. A nation peering far beyond its borders from space is less vulnerable to surprise attack. But it can just as easily scout invasion routes and targets. During the Cold War, spy satellites were the chief source of targeting directions for the United States' long-range bombers and missiles.

The satellites are built by private industry, but to export any kind of military equipment, a contractor must first get a license from the government.

Federal experts said last week that Spain, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates have all recently sought spy craft. American defense contractors, eager for such lucrative work as military budgets decline, said in interviews that other Middle Eastern and Asian countries has also expressed interest.

The disclosure last week of the U.A.E. request, the first public hint of such activity, prompted the State Department to confirm that a sale was under consideration and to add that a broad federal policy review had been initiated to weigh its merits.

"We are carefully examining, on an interagency basis, the complex issues involved in such transfers," Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said last week. "Our objective is to formulate a broad policy that will enable us to deal coherently and consistently" with such requests. He declined to elaborate or say when the review might be concluded.

Dr. Hans Mark, a former director of the National Reconnaissance Office at the Pentagon, which develops and operates the nation's spy satellites, said in an interview that the spread of such satellites could ease governmental tensions around the globe by substituting realistic appraisals for military speculation. But he said the United States should pick customers carefully.

But William E. Burrows, the author of "Deep Black," a book about space espionage, said any sales were "a terrifically bad idea" and could raise the risk of nuclear war.

Federal officials in the departments of State, Commerce and Defense, as well as the nation's intelligence agencies, are said to be deadlocked on whether to approve such sales.

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