US buys up all satellite war images

US buys up all satellite war images
Duncan Campbell
Wednesday October 17, 2001
The Guardian,3604,575586,00.html

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.

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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