BOB GARFIELD: One big frustration for reporters is to have access to a certain category of detailed information only to have it suddenly snatched away. This occurred recently in the matter of satellite photographs.
Until now, a commercial imaging satellite called Iconos had been available for the media and any other paying customer wishing to examined detailed pictures of the Afghan landscape. In an unusual move, however, the U.S. government has pre-empted them by purchasing for millions of dollars all Iconos images of the region.
The Pentagon did not invoke so-called "shutter control" which permits it for national security reasons to restrict commercial use of a satellite. But the effect is the same, leading some critics to assume the military is trying to cover up its actions in the war zone.
Joining us now is John Pike, founder of GlobalSecurity.com, a non-profit group that among other things helps media analyze satellite images. John, welcome to OTM!
JOHN PIKE: Glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's start with some technical stuff please. The Iconos satellite we're talking about has resolution to about one meter which means--
JOHN PIKE: Yeah, ma-- it basically means that you might barely be able to detect a person; you're certainly not going to be able to identify a person, but compared to the previous commercial satellites you can certainly see and identify airplanes whereas previously all you could see would be the airport and the runway.
BOB GARFIELD:All right now what about the government intelligence satellites. There are at least six of those. How much detail can they detect?
JOHN PIKE: Well the government satellites are a lot more expensive than the commercial satellites and they're vastly better. The classified systems can easily tell the make and model of a car; can easily spot an individual human being although even those systems aren't good enough to identify a high school.
BOB GARFIELD:Okay, so for the purposes of the war in Afghanistan with these intelligence satellites beaming back such refined images, does the U.S. government really need Iconos?
JOHN PIKE: Oh, I think that the strategy of the U.S. government is to take the high-resolution military satellites, have them focused on the highest priority targets, and then to use the commercial satellite imagery to focus on the lowest priority targets where that one meter resolution is basically adequate to tell you that yes, the desert is indeed still empty and that there are no cars or pickup trucks out there.
BOB GARFIELD:Okay, but another reason for pre-emptively obtaining the images would be to keep them out of other people's hands. If the government has them, then the media and certainly the enemy don't have them. Do you suppose there's an element of that going on here too?
JOHN PIKE: Well Washington is a big town and nothing ever happens in this town for just one reason, and I have no doubt that one of the additional benefits of the exclusive licensing policy is that it's making it more difficult for other users to-- obtain commercial imagery of Afghanistan.
BOB GARFIELD:When the Clinton Administration opened up the commercial spy satellite business, it included this provision that essentially permitted censorship during wartime. But instead the government decided to spend all this money and buy the information. Why didn't they just invoke the shutter-control privilege?
JOHN PIKE: The real problem that the U.S. government and the Defense Department would have I think is demonstrating why the restrictions that were being placed on the satellite imagery were reasonable and did not go beyond the restrictions that were being placed on other forms of news gathering. Unavoidably news organizations would view this as being prior restraint. They would ask why is it that we can photograph Bagram Air Base with our cameras on the ground but you're not going to allow us to get a satellite image of exactly the same location?
And obviously the government isn't going to want to lose that case.
BOB GARFIELD:There is a story in the Guardian Newspaper in the United Kingdom suggesting that the government, by purchasing not only new images from Iconos but images dating back to the beginning of the war in Afghanistan they were able to cover up damage to civilian facilities and, and-- widespread death of civilians.
Is it possible this is just - big coverup?
JOHN PIKE:Well I think that the Defense Department is obviously interested in controlling the information that's coming out about this war. The Bush Administration came into office wanting to tighten up on information policy, and this has been by far the most secretive war that the United States has fought over the last decade.
I don't think that the primary reason for--the government's purchase of the Iconos imagery is controlling the flow of information, but unavoidably you have to conclude that it does have that additional benefit -- that you basically remove the possibility of independent monitoring, independent verification of what's going on inside Afghanistan and made it extraordinarily difficult to independently evaluate the claims one way or the other about civilian casualties or refugees inside Afghanistan.
BOB GARFIELD: Very well. Thank you very much.
JOHN PIKE: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: John Pike is director of GlobalSecurity.org, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that examines satellite images.