White House to permit sale of spy satellites

March 11, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration announced yesterday that it would allow companies to market sophisticated spy satellite technology to commercial customers around the world.

The decision marks a big change from the comparatively strict limits now imposed on satellite-imaging systems, and it caps more than a year of intense debate among the Commerce Department, the Pentagon and government intelligence agencies.

The move, which could attract new business worth hundreds of millions of dollars to American industry, also marks one of the clearest examples so far of the administration's intention to emphasize commercial and economic priorities over more traditional Cold War-era concerns about national security.

Under the new policy, American companies will be allowed to build and operate for-profit satellite systems that are powerful enough to take photographs from 22,300 miles above the earth and depict objects on the ground as small as one square yard, smaller than a subcompact car or a hot-dog stand.

Several American companies, among them the Lockheed Corp., are hoping to set up satellite-imaging services for customers around the world. Customers would be able to transmit instructions directly to the satellite, which would turn its cameras to the desired location and then beam the images back to the ground. Such customers might include oil and mining companies and environmental researchers.

"This is 1994," David J. Barram, deputy secretary of commerce, said in an interview yesterday. "This is a new era. We believe national security and economic security are intertwined. In order to have national security, you have to have vibrant and competitive industries that are allowed to do what they do best."

Numerous companies already market commercial satellite images, which can be used for mapping, geologic surveys and even agricultural purposes, such as remote monitoring of cattle herds.

Prince George's County-based Earth Observation Satellite Corp. sells photos taken by federal government-owned Landsat satellites to governments and private industry. The company -- a joint venture of Martin Marietta Corp., which built and launched the lost satellite, and Hughes Aircraft Co. -- was formed in 1985 as part of a Reagan administration move to turn government services over to private industry.

The most sophisticated commercial satellite image services is offered by Spot Image, a French company, and it cannot produce photographs showing land areas smaller than about 10 yards in diameter. And while the Spot system is being upgraded, it will still be unable to view areas smaller than five yards.

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