When Spying Goes Public

Article excerpt

In centuries past, governments, both good and bad, could hide secret projects and troop movements from prying eyes. Armies would fight over mountaintops or float balloons to get a visual advantage.

The airplane changed the rules of the game. Spies on the ground could locate a target; reconnaissance planes could then photograph it. But both balloons and aircraft could be brought down by ground fire.

Today, spy satellites are (so far) beyond the reach of ground- based weapons. US surveillance ability was a big trump in the Gulf War and Kosovo. Arms-control agreements rely on each side's confidence that it can verify what the other side is up to.

With the Sept. 24 launch of Space Imaging Inc.'s IKONOS-2 satellite, photography once available only to intelligence agencies will be on sale by year's end to the public, the media, and anyone else willing to pay. The detail in these photos - showing objects as small as one yard wide - goes far beyond anything viewers have yet seen on their TV screens or the Internet.

And that makes American national-security officials antsy. They worry that a potential enemy or terrorist group could obtain useful information to plan attacks or defend against US military strikes.

In 1994 President Clinton ordered private satellite companies to submit to "shutter control. …