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Satellite images protected from release under defense bill

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    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information    

Satellite images protected from release under defense bill

  • Unclassified satellite images that news organizations use in covering wars, refugee movements, natural disasters such as hurricanes and other stories would be shielded from public view under a provision slipped into the Senate version of a bill authorizing defense spending.

Sep. 16, 2004 — Images from satellites and unclassified information based on them would no longer be available to the public under a Senate provision in the 2005 defense authorization bill. Although the Senate has already passed the measure, a congressional committee is working to iron out differences in House and Senate versions of the bill as open government interests try to block the secrecy measure. The provision appears only in the Senate version.

The measure is in 34 lines in the 788-page Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2005. The provision would allow agencies to protect satellite images and any unclassified reports or information derived from the images. The Freedom of Information Act has only nine exemptions. The provision would fall under the third exemption which protects information made confidential by other federal laws.

The provision would “positively prohibit disclosure” of all satellite information, including unclassified information, Steven Aftergood wrote in the Web newsletter Secrecy News. “Government officials would be barred from releasing it under FOIA even if they wanted to.”

The provision also would preempt state and local laws that mandate disclosure of satellite images.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association has asked Congress to remove the provision, saying it is “ripe for misuse and abuse.” Rather than chip away at the FOI Act, Congress should let the information continue to go through the government’s established classification procedures and unclassified information should continue to be available publicly.

In a letter to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, RTNDA President Barbara Cochran said information from satellites — called remote sensing imagery in the legislation — is an important aspect of newsgathering.

“Recent uses include coverage of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts; nuclear and other [weapons of mass destruction] sites in Iran, Pakistan, India, Libya, North Korea, China and other countries; flooding in Bangladesh and Eastern India; deforestation in Brazil; wildfires and tornadoes in the United States; and refugee crises in the Sudan, Rwanda and other countries,” Cochran wrote. “The usefulness of such imagery in covering wars, refugees, disasters, genocides, illicit weapons, etc., is readily apparent. While advocating access to such imagery, however, RTNDA has expressly acknowledged that threats to the national security that are serious, direct and immediate would justify discrete government action to prevent particular imagery from being disseminated.”

A legislative aide working for the Senate Armed Services Committee said Wednesday that the interpretation of the provision is not what the Senate intended. It was intended to shield from mandatory government disclosure under the FOI Act information gathered by commercial satellite that the government possesses but that cannot be released by the satellite owners themselves under the terms of their government licenses.

The provision should only protect information that is classifiable and that government agencies should be able to make discretionary disclosures, the aide said. If the information is actually classified it is already protected from disclosure.

(H.R. 4200) KM

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