American intelligence experts debating sale of spy-satellite technology

April 27, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. intelligence community has begun grappling with one of the most contentious and far-reaching issues it is likely to face in the next few years -- whether to let other countries buy American-made reconnaissance satellites, which ultimately could be used for spying against U.S. forces or allies.

Several countries are eager to buy high-resolution satellites from American companies. The businesses, which have supporters in Congress and the U.S. Commerce Department, point out that the sales could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for U.S. industries trying to survive the recession and defense-industry downsizing.

But U.S. intelligence officials are leery of allowing the export of advanced spy technology that could wind up in the hands of America's enemies. "If we had been in a position to sell one [a reconnaissance satellite] 15 years ago, the shah [of Iran] would certainly have gotten one," said one U.S. intelligence source. "And look whose hands it would be in now."

When CIA Director R. James Woolsey took office earlier this year, he was given a list by his predecessor, Robert Gates, of some of the most important intelligence issues requiring decisions over the next few years -- and the question of exporting U.S. reconnaissance satellites was high on it. Intelligence sources say that Mr. Gates himself had been one of the strongest opponents of such exports.

The growing debate over exporting spy satellites has been conducted primarily in private -- both at interagency meetings involving the CIA and other intelligence agencies and in closed-door meetings involving the congressional intelligence committees and their staffs.

But the controversy surfaced in public late last year, when tradepublications disclosed that the United Arab Emirates is exploring the possibility of buying what amounts to a reconnaissance satellite from Litton's Itek Optical Systems.

Israeli officials quickly voiced alarm about the proposal. "They [the United States] are going to supply the Arab countries with binoculars that will enable them to see every military movement here," one Israeli defense official told the Jerusalem Post.

Last month, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Dan Glickman, D-Kan., alluded briefly to the ongoing controversy when he told Mr. Woolsey at a public hearing that the committee has been "investigating the feasibility of selling older reconnaissance technology to our allies."

Mr. Glickman said that he wanted to talk to the CIA director about "how we perhaps help in the export" of the satellites or technology, thus suggesting that he supports the idea.

In response, Mr. Woolsey avoided taking any public position, saying only that the issue is "a hot potato." Last year, before he became CIA director, Mr. Woolsey served as head of a special task force that studied U.S. satellite programs and policies. The panel studied whether other countries should be allowed to buy American satellites but reached no conclusions.

In addition to the United Arab Emirates, a number of European and Asian countries, including Spain and South Korea, also are said to be in the market for American-made reconnaissance satellites -- which would be of much lower quality than the U.S. intelligence community operates but better than anything that can now be sold here.

"What most of these guys are talking about is selling another country less capability than what we currently have," said one U.S. intelligence source. "But it's a fairly contentious issue, in terms of what we sell, to whom and under what conditions."

Satellites now available on the commercial market have a resolution of as little as five meters, meaning that they can relay pictures from space of objects as small as five meters, or 16 feet.

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