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U.S. military takes over satellite photos of Afghanistan

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering         Oct 19, 2001    

U.S. military takes over satellite photos of Afghanistan

  • Defense Department officials eliminated media access to high-resolution satellite images by signing an exclusive contract with Space Imaging, the sole domestic provider of such pictures.

Department of Defense officials extinguished media access to high-resolution satellite images of Afghanistan by signing an exclusive contract with the only company in America that sells precision images from space.

Space Imaging, based in Colorado, offers pictures that clearly show objects as small as one square meter. The company previously sold pictures to newspapers and broadcast stations for $500 apiece, said Mark Brender, director of Space Imaging’s Washington, D.C. operations.

Now, the Defense Department’s National Imagery and Mapping Agency alone controls the rights to the company’s satellite pictures of the Middle East.

“The agreement, effective on the seventh of October, will give us access to these images in support of Operation Enduring Freedom,” said Joan Mears, a Defense spokeswoman.

The exclusive contract, renewable monthly, was intended to ensure that the Pentagon enjoyed sole access to Space Imaging’s pictures so the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan may succeed, Mears said.

“We will not sell, release, distribute or share images to any other entity,” she said. Mears declined to comment on how the military will use the pictures.

According to Brender, the government’s ability to pay well for the pictures influenced Space Imaging to grant exclusive rights to the government.

“It was a sound business transaction — nothing more, nothing less,” he said. “The United States government decided they needed more capacity. They bought most of the capacity of the IKONOS satellite in the Middle East region.”

Images of Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf region are transmitted daily from the company’s IKONOS satellite, which orbits more than 400 miles above the earth’s crust, Brender said. Quality of the pictures varies depending on what angle the satellite has.

In a letter addressed to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders protested the arrangement between the department and Space Imaging to deprive the media of pictures of Afghanistan from the most efficient civilian satellite.

“This contract, effective since the first day of U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan, is a way of disguised censorship aimed at preventing the media from doing their monitoring job,” wrote Robert Ménard, general secretary for the group.

According to a United Press International report, the exclusive contract is “blocking access by the media and interest groups to the information and circumventing potential First Amendment lawsuits.”

Space Imaging launched the IKONOS satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1999, although government money was not used during the construction or launching of the satellite, Brender said.

After the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, Space Imaging offered IKONOS images of the World Trade Center free on the Internet, to aid in search and rescue operations. Those satellite images clearly distinguished automobiles and similar objects, although shapes as small as humans are not visible in the pictures.


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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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