Press Access to Satellite Images Is a Casualty in This War: The Department of Defense Owns and Controls These Pictures. (Coverage of Terrorism)

By Simpson, Christopher | Nieman Reports, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Press Access to Satellite Images Is a Casualty in This War: The Department of Defense Owns and Controls These Pictures. (Coverage of Terrorism)


Simpson, Christopher, Nieman Reports


Not too many years ago, I invited the chief intelligence and national security correspondent from one of America's most prominent newspapers to a conference on news media use of remote sensing tools to cover wars and similar crises. He gruffly replied that it was all baloney (though he used a different word for it) and declined to attend. I was curious and asked him why.

"Remote sensing," he said, "like using mind waves to read Kremlin mail," is complete crud. (He used a different term there, as well.)

Today that correspondent tells quite a different story. He encourages his paper to use remote sensing tools such as images gathered by civilian spy satellites, especially for coverage of the World Trade Center disaster and the subsequent war in Afghanistan. Remote sensing from satellites, sometimes known as "earth observation" or as imagery gathered by spy satellites, has nothing whatever to do with ill conceived attempts to use purported psychics for intelligence collection.

Instead, unclassified imagery gathered from space has emerged as a powerful tool for capturing unique photographs and information. Properly analyzed, these images present to broad audiences some of the complex ideas that for decades have been the exclusive preserve of presidents, intelligence agencies, and a handful of scientific specialists. During the past three years alone, almost every major news organization in the world has used these tools to report on natural disasters, war, closed societies, environmental destruction, some types of human rights abuses, refugee flight and relief, scientific discoveries, agriculture and even real estate development.

The increasing popularity and effectiveness of these journalistic tools has raised concerns in some quarters that public images might reveal sensitive information in wartime, most recently in Afghanistan. Since mid-September, federal intelligence and security agencies have organized a sweeping clampdown on almost every type of geographic information available on the Internet, including civilian remote sensing information. Satellite imagery of Afghanistan, surrounding countries, and sensitive installations in the United States were among the first to go. The National Imagery and Mapping Agency--the Defense Department's lead agency for satellite image collection and analysis--went so far as to attempt to end public distribution of decades-old, widely available Landsat 5 imagery and of topographic maps of the United States that have been commercially available in one form or another for more than 100 years. They did not succeed. Nevertheless, NIMA and other defense agencies have announced a "review" of publicly available U.S. maps in order to eliminate what they assert to be potentially dangerous information.

Procedures for suppressing what is regarded as "sensitive" imagery and geographic information have been a feature of presidential national security directives since the Reagan administration. But never before have these restrictions been implemented so rapidly or on such a wide scale. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which operates low-resolution weather satellites, posted an image on the Internet on the afternoon of September 11 that showed a long smoke plume drifting from New York City down the east coast of the United States. Moments later, they took it off the net and issued a press statement stating that no weather imagery report at all was available for September 11. When satellite imagery watchers called NOAA on this contradiction, the agency eventually returned the satellite photograph of the smoke plume. NOAA has yet to acknowledge that they suppressed the image in the first place. Unfortunately, since mid-September NOAA's highly regarded Operational Significant Event Imagery (OSEI) coverage of territories outside the United States has been cut to a small, anemic fraction of its former output, also without acknowledging that there has been any change. …

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