Declassified Documents Trace U.S. Policy Shifts on Use of Commercial Satellite Imagery from 1970s to Today

  • Lack of Control over Foreign Developments, Desire to Promote American Firms, and Potential Benefits Vied with National Security Concerns
  • Recent U.S. Concerns Include Terrorists’ Use of Google Earth

Published on The National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 404, by Jeffrey T. Richelson, November 27, 2012.

In the forty years since the first launch of a commercial imagery satellite – LANDSAT – in 1972, U.S. official policy has shifted dramatically from imposing significant limits on their capabilities to permitting U.S. firms to orbit high-resolution satellites with significant intelligence-gathering capacities.  

According to declassified documents posted today by the National Security Archive, internal debates within the government have focused both on the risks of adversaries exploiting such commercial platforms and on the potential benefits for the U.S. of having access to unclassified imagery.

The risks in recent years include the use of Google Earth by terrorist groups to identify targets for attack; the benefits range from being able to observe foreign nuclear sites to monitoring human rights violations.

Over time, U.S. presidents have come to recognize that they cannot prevent foreign entities from developing extremely high-resolution satellite equipment. This realization has contributed to drastic swings in U.S. policies, aimed not only at enhancing the national security but at promoting the commercial competitiveness of American companies abroad.

The 39 documents posted today were obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests, archival research and a variety of websites. They focus on virtually every issue associated with commercial satellite imagery over the last four decades.

  • Among the highlights are records relating to:CIA examination, in the early 1970s, of the ability of China and other nations to extract strategic intelligence – including intelligence on ICBM sites – from LANDSAT images (Document 1, Document 2).
  • The Defense Mapping Agency’s evaluation, in 1994, of the procurement of Soviet reconnaissance satellite imagery (Document 11).
  • National Security Adviser Sandy Berger’s summation of the reasons why the U.S. government had to reconsider its restrictions on commercial satellite imagery (Document 7).
  • DCI George J. Tenet’s 2002 directive, in the wake of problems with classified satellite imagery programs, for U.S. intelligence agencies to increase their use of commercial imagery (Document 20).
  • The DNI Open Source Center’s monitoring, since 2006, of the use of Google Earth products on jihadist web sites (Document 23).
  • The agreement between the Director of National Intelligence and Secretary of Defense, in 2008, to have the National Reconnaissance Office purchase two commercial-class satellites, rather than purchase commercial satellite imagery (Document 26).
  • The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s purchase of the radar imagery produced by a number of foreign commercial satellites (Document 29).
  • The notification from NGA to GeoEye that there would be cuts in funding for the Enhanced View project (Document 38a, Document 38b).

Commercial Satellite Imagery and National Security, By Jeffrey T. Richelson:

Satellite imagery of foreign targets that could be exploited for intelligence purposes originated as a highly-classified activity. Until 1970 – when the People’s Republic of China orbited its first photo-reconnaissance satellite – it was a capability possessed only by the United and Soviet Union. All of those nations restricted access to the product of their space reconnaissance operations to a select number of cleared individuals (which included, at least in the case of the United States, some in the governments of allied nations) … //

… From the earliest days of commercial satellite imagery – when it was restricted to LANDSAT – while there have been individuals or institutions who have viewed it largely with promise, others focused on the peril they believed it represented. One concern was that foreign intelligence organizations could exploit such imagery for strategic military intelligence, augmenting whatever capabilities that they possessed. Thus, in the early 1970s, two CIA studies (Document 1, Document 2) examined the ability of People’s Republic of China or other nations to exploit LANDSAT. Some of that work was employed in making licensing decisions.

Some were concerned that such satellites could be employed to undermine operational security – either by producing images of classified facilities (such as Area 51) or military operations in progress or about to occur – such as General Norman Schwarzkopf’s “Hail Mary” maneuver that preceded the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in February 1991. The problems and possible solutions were examined in a variety of studies, including theses for military educational institutions (Document19, Document 36). One solution, implemented by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, was to preemptively purchase all of IKONOS’ capability to produce imagery of Afghanistan – so that images could be released only with the U.S. government’s approval.6

More recently, there has been concern over the use of assets such as Google Earth by terrorist groups. By April 2006, the Director of National Intelligence’s Open Source Center began monitoring use of Google Earth on jihadist websites. The center subsequently reported that in September 2006 “Al-Qaeda linked militants in Yemen exploded four car bombs in a failed attack on oil facilities, planned with the aid of Google Earth.” (Document 23)

At the same time, it became clear that commercial imagery could aid U.S. national security and civil agencies in the performance of their mission. Thus, civil satellite imagery was employed in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In 1996, it was reported that SPOT imagery was used to produce simulated 3-D images that conduct practice flyovers of Bosnia.7

In addition, such imagery, being unclassified, could be shared without restriction with foreign governments and organizations that would not be granted access to the product of U.S. intelligence satellite systems. It could also be used in releasing material to the public without restriction – which the Pentagon took advantage of, as noted above, in producing Soviet Military Power. In addition, such systems could be used to augment classified systems when the classified constellation was experiencing problems because of on-orbit failures or due to problems with satellite development. Thus, in 2002, Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet, in the face of problems with the Future Imagery Architecture program, directed increased use of commercial imagery (Document 20).

That commercial imagery was envisioned as an essential part of U.S. national security strategy was evident in an April 2009 decision by President Barack Obama. He directed (Document 27) that in addition to procuring two classified electro-optical imagery satellites to provide intelligence in support of national security and other activities the U.S. should also invest in two commercial imagery satellites. An earlier plan (Document 26), which called for the National Reconnaissance Office to procure two commercial-class satellites, generated opposition from a variety of sources, and Congress denied funds to go forward. However, since then budget limitations have threatened to lead to cuts in the $7.3 billion Enhanced View program (Document 38a, Document 38b), serving as a catalyst for further consolidation of U.S. commercial imagery firms.8.
(full text, Documents 1 to 38b and Notes).

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