WASHINGTON -- Millions of top-secret spy satellite photographs will be released under an order President Clinton is expected to sign in coming weeks, providing an information windfall that could help determine the extent to which oceans are fouled, deserts are expanding and rain forests are disappearing.
If Mr. Clinton approves the long-standing but controversial proposal, the government will declassify all the satellite photographs taken from 1960 to 1972 and provide scientists with an unprecedented historical record of what the Earth looked like 35 years ago.
The photographs were taken by six generations of early spy satellites, starting with the still secret Keyhole 1, an Air Force satellite.
The executive order has been delayed, however, by industrial and national security advocates leery of the Clinton administration's campaign for openness.
One concern is that declassifying old photographs will become a slippery slope that leads to unwanted disclosures about the capability of modern systems.
Starting in 1992 under a proposal by Vice President Al Gore, then a Tennessee senator, a task force of about 80 environmentalists examined how the photographs might be used, concluding in a top-secret report that they represent an important scientific and historical resource.
Aerospace experts have argued that the old photographs have little national security value and would reveal almost nothing about the capability of today's generation of spy satellites. Today's satellites reportedly can depict objects six inches or smaller.
The oldest Keyhole satellites could reveal objects 460 feet in size, but the later KH-6 could reveal objects six feet in size -- resolution fine enough for environmentalists to examine individual trees, rivers, buildings and ocean plant life, according to White House officials.