Firms race for images from space But officials are wary of spy-quality photos being sold to public


WASHINGTON -- Two years ago, President Clinton gave American companies the go-ahead to do something they had been forbidden to do for years: sell spy-quality satellite pictures to anyone who wants to buy them.

But now, as aerospace giants scurry to put up new satellites and secure a piece of this new market, the government is getting edgy about the sales and reviewing procedures it might use to block certain transactions.

The firms' space images, which are 10 times more detailed than what's been commercially available, have gone exclusively to U.S. intelligence agencies and military planners. But by late 1997, they are expected to be used by everyone from tax assessors and farmers to swimming pool marketers looking for the best neighborhoods to make their sales pitches.

"The civilian, nonmilitary uses of this technology will dwarf the military applications over time," says Keith Calhoun-Senghor, director of the Commerce Department's Office of Air and Space Commercialization. So far, seven companies have received licenses from the department to enter the field, which is expected to be worth more than $2 billion by the year 2000.

Big aerospace companies are finishing plans for their additional satellites and their distribution systems, with the first new satellite expected to be in the air late this year. The high-resolution images, taken from about 400 miles above the Earth, are fine enough to distinguish objects as small as 39 inches.

That "1-meter resolution," which is 10 times finer than France's SPOT satellite system, makes it possible to distinguish a sedan from a van.

Even before its system is in the air, a company called Space Imaging, a spinoff of Lockheed Martin Corp., is trying to build up a market for its product. Starting in the San Francisco Bay Area, the firm is working with an aerial mapping company to simulate the pictures it will eventually provide from the satellite. It will soon begin the same effort in a dozen other cities.

Brian Webster, director of marketing communications for Space Imaging, based in Thornton, Colo., said municipal agencies, like fire departments and public works departments, are showing interest in the pictures. "We also expect that there will be other customers that we haven't identified," he said.

Opening up the industry to such commercial sales was billed as a way to help American industry and protect national security at the same time.

The administration argued that if U.S. companies weren't permitted to sell these photos outside the government intelligence market, they might fall behind the growing field of international competitors. And if that happened, some day the ,, United States might be forced to turn to foreign companies for the spy pictures it wants.

Mr. Calhoun-Senghor concludes: "Our national security is enhanced by us having a strong share of the international remote-sensing market."

But critics charge that the sale of the pictures might put detailed information in the hands of terrorists who have until now been unable to get such high-quality images.

John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists says for most business and scientific uses, aerial photographs taken from airplanes are recent enough, detailed enough and far cheaper than satellite images.

To make his point, he's posted overhead pictures of many of the nation's spy agencies -- taken from airplanes but of the same detail as those that will come from the satellites -- on his think tank's Internet home page.

Who will spend more money just to get more recent shots? he asks rhetorically, and then answers: "Somebody who wants to blow something up."

To ensure against sales at risky moments, each satellite license grants the government "shutter control," or the right to censor images, "during periods when national security or international obligations and / or foreign policies may be compromised."

The provision contains few details and has not yet been tested. But company and government officials agree the censorship could take many forms, including prohibiting companies from taking the pictures or from distributing them to anyone outside the U.S. military.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Commerce Department agency that regulates the satellite systems, is reviewing its rules on what standards should be applied and what procedures followed should the government move to cut off the flow of pictures.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, says the agency '' rules in this area so far "display a bias" toward U.S. industry over national security. Mr. Bingaman is urging the government to consider France's approach, which limits high-resolution satellite image sales to approved military and intelligence customers, both foreign and domestic.

NOAA is still collecting comments from parties interested in the policy and will likely hold a public meeting in June to receive further comments.

But media representatives complain that censorship would be unjustified.

"This won't be a government satellite. It won't be located in an area owned or controlled by the government and it won't be imaging things that belong to the government," said J. Laurent Scharff, a Washington communications lawyer.

Mr. Scharff said the guidelines for censoring satellite images should apply only when there is a "clear and present danger" to the nation, the national security standard that is applied in other areas.

Under current rules, the secretary of state or defense would ask the commerce secretary to censor the images, with disagreements to be settled by the president. Mr. Scharff said the government should be required to go to court for approval of any move to block the distribution of any information.

Pub Date: 4/01/96

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