[Reader-list] US buys up all satellite war images

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Thu Oct 18 06:26:06 IST 2001

US buys up all satellite war images

Duncan Campbell
Wednesday October 17, 2001
The Guardian

The Pentagon has spent millions of dollars to prevent western media 
from seeing highly accurate civilian satellite pictures of the 
effects of bombing in Afghanistan, it was revealed yesterday.

The images, which are taken from Ikonos, an advanced civilian 
satellite launched in 1999, are better than the spy satellite 
pictures available to the military during most of the cold war.

The extraordinary detail of the images already taken by the satellite 
includes a line of terrorist trainees marching between training camps 
at Jalalabad. At the same resolution, it would be possible to see 
bodies lying on the ground after last week's bombing attacks.

Under American law, the US defence department has legal power to 
exercise "shutter control" over civilian satellites launched from the 
US in order to prevent enemies using the images while America is at 
war. But no order for shutter control was given, even after the 
bombing raids began 10 days ago.

The decision to shut down access to satellite images was taken last 
Thursday, after reports of heavy civilian casualties from the 
overnight bombing of training camps near Darunta, north-west of 
Jalalabad. Instead of invoking its legal powers, the Pentagon bought 
exclusive rights to all Ikonos satellite pictures of Afghanistan off 
Space Imaging, the company which runs the satellite. The agreement 
was made retrospectively to the start of the bombing raids.

The US military does not need the pictures for its own purposes 
because it already has six imaging satellites in orbit, augmented by 
a seventh launched last weekend. Four of the satellites, called 
Keyholes, take photographic images estimated to be six to 10 times 
better than the 1 metre resolution available from Ikonos.

The decision to use commercial rather than legal powers to bar access 
to satellite images was heavily criticised by US intelligence 
specialists last night. Since images of the bombed Afghan bases would 
not have shown the position of US forces or compromised US military 
security, the ban could have been challenged by news media as being a 
breach of the First Amendment, which guarantees press freedom.

"If they had imposed shutter control, it is entirely possible that 
news organisations would have filed a lawsuit against the government 
arguing prior restraint censorship," said Dr John Pike, of 
Globalsecurity, a US website which publishes satellite images of 
military and alleged terrorist facilities around the world.

The only alternative source of accurate satellite images would be the 
Russian Cosmos system. But Russia has not yet decided to step into 
the information void created by the Pentagon deal with Space Imaging.

ยท Duncan Campbell is a writer on intelligence matters, and is not the 
Guardian's Los Angeles correspondent of the same name.


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