CIA Examines Limiting Sale of Satellite Photography

WASHINGTON -- The CIA is worried that U.S. satellite firms will endanger national security if they sell high-resolution photos from space to foreign governments and companies.


As a result, the intelligence agency is considering a number of novel options to ease its concerns, including the possibility of becoming partners with the firms so the CIA would have some say in their operations. Other options include assigning government censors to control when and where satellites take high-resolution photos or even for the government to provide its own versions of the photos and compete with private enterprise.


The chief fear of the intelligence community is that U.S. adversaries could learn American or allied military secrets by hiring commercial satellites to do their spy work for them.


Not surprisingly, the firms that build the nation's spy satellites say they could be hurt financially if restricted in selling photos to domestic and foreign mapmakers, meteorologists, oil firms, environmentalists, city planners, news organizations and others.


"We hope the deliberations won't result in a policy requiring firms to seek permission to sell imagery around the world, or in the government competing with companies," said Gilbert Rye, a vice president at Orbital Sciences Corp. in Fairfax, Virginia.


"We're about to lose our technological lead if we don't get out of the government mind-set."


Orbital Sciences is part of a consortium seeking permission to develop a satellite photo system that can discern objects on the ground as tiny as one meter in length; Lockheed Corp. also is seeking permission for a "one meter" system. A California firm, WorldView Imaging Corp., has approval to sell photos from which one can discern objects three meters long.


Government-subsidized Russian and French firms are far ahead of the Americans in claiming the "remote sensing" market, and their governments impose less strict limits on the photos' clarity and sharpness, industry officials argue. This is another example of the U.S. national security establishment, fearing that commercialization of fast-evolving technologies can harm U.S. interests, wanting to rein in U.S. industry. Last week, the White House decided to continue a long-standing ban on exporting powerful new encryption gear for scrambling conversations and data.


The National Security Agency wants the ban because its employees cannot decode the encrypted material; critics say the action undermines both civil liberties and U.S. firms' ability to compete globally.


"The intelligence community is in crisis because the sources, methods and technologies on which it built its mystique and monopoly are passing it by," said Robert Steele, a top Marine Corps intelligence official until last April and now an intelligence consultant.


"The bureaucracy's having difficulty coming to grips with change."


Pentagon and CIA hardliners want an outright ban on U.S. firms' plans to commercialize satellite technologies, industry and government sources said. CIA Director R. James Woolsey, according to the sources, worries about the national security implications but also is sympathetic to industry's pleas.


"It's a balancing process," said a congressional source, "and Woolsey is groping for the solution."


The Commerce Department grants the licenses for satellite firms but follows the CIA's guidance. The CIA is expected to limit the clarity of space photos to be snapped.


The CIA is considering somehow becoming a partner with satellite firms in their commercial ventures to exert "shutter control" over the cameras, government officials said. The agency also may set up government commissions to rule on requests for commercial space photos, the sources said. Both of those proposals would require congressional action. Industry officials said CIA control over the cameras would kill the venture. WorldView president Douglas Gerull said "censorship isn't in the cards" because foreigners would conclude U.S. firms are unreliable providers.


Finally, the CIA is considering selling its own archival spy photos.


Firms do not mind that possibility if the photos are old, but do if they are recent, because the CIA would be competing with them.