Private Eyes

The New York Times Magazine, 5 September 1999

Suppose you had just spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build and launch a satellite and were planning to recoup the investment by selling the satellite’s pictures. Chances are you would be pretty good at thinking up reasons that someone might want to buy images from outer space. At any rate, John Copple is.

Copple is the C.E.O. of Space Imaging, whose Ikonos satellite—assuming the Sept. 24 launch goes as planned—will offer the finest-grained pictures ever sold on the open market. ‘’Where do I want to park the boat?’’ asks Copple, who is not, actually, in a boat, but is imagining himself in the shoes of a data-poor sports fisherman. ‘’I want to fish where there’s a lot of underbrush underneath the water, so the fish population has a lot of food.’’ The solution is obvious. Ikonos ‘’can see into the water quite a ways.’’

Fishing is not the only endeavor now plagued by primitive uncertainty. There’s also hiking. But by taking a ‘’3-D fly-through of Yellowstone Park,’’ you could choose the most scenic trail before leaving home. Or maybe you’re in the real-estate market, scouring the hills for choice acreage. Or you’re in the swimming pool business, combing the city for affluent addresses with large backyards but no pools. Or you’re a farmer who wants to use ‘’multispectral’’ imagery to see which crops are in distress before they visibly falter.

There is, however, one use of Ikonos imagery that Copple does not bring up—and that, when pressed, he plays down. It’s the use for which reconnaissance satellites were invented four decades ago: reconnaissance. Vipin Gupta, a remote-sensing expert at Sandia National Laboratories, is more voluble on the subject. ‘’In the short term, make no mistake, they’re marketing for defense and intelligence applications,’’ he says of Space Imaging and the several competing companies that plan to enter the high-resolution imaging business. ‘’Governments have been willing to pay big money for this kind of data.’’

This is what makes Ikonos a geopolitical milestone. Able to discern objects only a few feet wide—to see at ‘’one-meter resolution’’—it will give presidents, generals and assorted political actors around the globe a kind of power once confined to elite nations.

This democratization is not universally celebrated. Among the ambivalent: high-tech nations, like Israel, with low-tech enemies, and sole-remaining-superpowers accustomed to kicking around tinhorn dictators. If Saddam Hussein had got his hands on good satellite imagery during the Persian Gulf war, Iraq could have anticipated Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s famous ‘’left hook’’ maneuver and turned it into a bit less of a cakewalk.

Faced with such prospects, the United States is struggling to preserve a strategic edge. Some approaches are peaceful, like denying commercial licenses for certain types of imagery or reserving the legal right to exercise emergency ‘’shutter control’’ over American-owned satellites—that is, reserving the right to blind a satellite company’s customers. Other approaches are not so peaceful, like developing a ground-based laser that could convert satellites—including those that belong to American companies—into insensate hunks of warm metal in time of national peril. According to a report issued last year by the United States Space Command, America must be able to assert the ‘’control of space’’ whenever necessary.

That’s one view. Another view is that everyone should calm down. In this view, the ‘’age of transparency,’’ as the science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke has called it, will be a wonderful thing. In his 1987 novel, ‘’2061: Odyssey Three,’’ Clarke envisioned a time when, with everyone keeping an eye on everyone else, surprise attacks would be impossible and war among great powers unthinkable.

For the policy doctrine in search of Washington credibility, being championed by a science-fiction writer is not necessarily an asset. But a measured version of the Clarke scenario is now being used by some Washington policy analysts. ‘’Symmetrical transparency will be a good thing in the long run for peace,’’ says Ann Florini of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

So why isn’t transparency being hailed by more people in Government? Because, Florini says, they don’t get paid to think about the long run. They’re in the business of day-to-day crisis control—handling the Husseins of the world, struggling for tactical advantage. ‘’They’re in the habit of fighting this fire right now, and it’s easier to fight this fire right now if you have control over the information flow.’’

So, as Ikonos awaits its debut, there is disagreement over what to worry about. In some parts of Government, the worry is that the era signaled by Ikonos will be bad for national security and world peace. In some think tanks, the worry is that this attitude could itself be bad for national security and world peace—that the United States will spend its time trying vainly to forestall the age of transparency rather than shaping it to benign ends.

What everyone agrees on is that things are going to change. The era of commercially available high-resolution satellite imagery has been falsely proclaimed for years. Launches have been delayed and delayed again—or, worse still, have failed. In fact, an earlier Ikonos, launched in April, never reached orbit, thanks to a faulty rocket. But with Ikonos ready to go and two comparable commercial satellites due up in space in 2000, the age of transparency now seems sure to dawn one way or another. Within a year, ‘’we’re going to see takeoff finally occur—for better or worse,’’ says John Baker, formerly of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and now a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation.

If Ikonos gets up and running, it will hardly be the first satellite offering salable pictures. But its one-meter-resolution images will be unique. Unlike the 10-meter images available from the French SPOT satellites and the 5-meter images available from India, the pictures from Ikonos will get analysts close enough to discern missile launchers and tanks and distinguish between fighter planes and bombers. Moreover, unlike the two-meter images sold by Russia, the Ikonos images aren’t hobbled by Sputnik-era technology. The Russians still parachute their film to earth; under ideal conditions a picture is available nine days after it is shot, and the wait has been known to take months. Space Imaging, under ideal circumstances, can get a preliminary image out 30 minutes after the shutter snaps. Five-day-old images will qualify as archival and sell for $30 to $300 per square mile of mapped surface on the company’s Web site.

This combination of clarity and speed is what gives American military planners the creeps. And the combination will grow only more pervasive. Ikonos, circling the globe on a north-south axis twice a day, and swiveling east to west from its 420-mile-high perch, will render the average piece of turf visible once every three days. If Space Imaging’s two American competitors, Orbital Imaging Corporation and Earthwatch, stay on their launch schedules, visibility could reach once a day within a year.

American attempts to forestall transparency will have to contend with the force that confounds various national policies these days—global competition. Consider a restraint that Congress, with State Department support, has placed on satellites launched by American companies: it is now illegal to take high-resolution pictures of Israel. Naturally, this makes American satellites less attractive to some customers (Israeli businesses, certainly). So does the general uncertainty spawned by the Clinton Administration’s elastic shutter-control rules, which give the Government the power to shut down satellites not just to protect ‘’national security’’ but also when ‘’international obligations or foreign policy interests may be compromised.’’ Eventually, you would expect satellite entrepreneurs to avoid these liabilities by incorporating in hands-off places like the Cayman Islands.

Sure enough, by next year, if all goes according to plan, one-meter images will be available from West Indian Space Ltd., a Cayman Islands company. (It is a joint venture involving an American company and Israel Aircraft Industries, which is owned by the same Israeli Government that successfully lobbied to fetter high-resolution American satellites. If you would like energetic elaboration on this paradox, contact lobbyists from American satellite companies.)

And so it will go. In the long run, the more the American Government tries to control commercial satellites, the fewer American commercial satellites there will be to control. In the fall of 1997, Orbital Imaging asked permission to sell data from a planned ‘’hyperspectral’’ satellite, Orb View-4. Such a satellite could detect camouflage, help find underground minerals and maybe even sense genetically distinct strains of corn and other crops (in which case, agribusinesses like Monsanto might use it to hunt down farmers planting bootlegged copies of proprietary seed). Finally, in April, the Administration rendered a verdict: yes, Orbital can sell hyperspectral images, but currently only at 24-meter resolution, not at Orb View’s 8-meter capacity. Expect the next hyperspectral satellite to come from a more laissez-faire nation.

In an especially vigorous exercise in futility, the United States has tried to impede the launch of a foreign commercial satellite. The Canadian company Macdonald Dettwiler expected NASA to launch its three-meter-resolution radar satellite, Radarsat-2, which was slated to make its debut in 2002. But radar satellites can see through clouds and at night, something the Pentagon has said it doesn’t want just anybody to be able to do at resolutions finer than five meters. Early this year, NASA started balking at handling the launch. So the Canadians, not surprisingly, have started exploring the possibility of a European launch.

The coming age of transparency has received so little attention in Washington policy circles that to speak of a conventional wisdom is premature. Still, there is a small community of transparency ponderers, and their discourse to date, when synthesized and stripped of bothersome academic caveats and qualifications, yields a few basic generalizations.

Rule No. 1 is almost self-evident: as transparency is imposed on all nations from above, closed societies, like North Korea, have more secrets to lose than open societies, like our own. This rule hasn’t kept American officials from worrying. At a conference on remote sensing earlier this year, a speaker from the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates U.S. spy satellites and weighs in on commercial satellite licensing (along with the C.I.A. and the State, Defense and Commerce Departments), warned that ‘’soon Hezbollah and Osama bin Laden are going to have access to a one-meter image of—you pick it—the state Capitol at Albany, N.Y., the White House, the Congress, the Pentagon.’’

Actually, if Osama bin Laden wants an overhead view of the Pentagon, he should check out the Web site of the National Reconnaissance Office. Among the images at is a nice satellite shot of the building from Government archives. It’s not at one-meter resolution, but crisper shots taken from airplanes are available at Washington souvenir stores.

Besides, most terrorists would just as soon blow up a bus station as a Federal building—and they deliver bombs by car, not plane. ‘’A terrorist doesn’t need satellite imagery,’’ says Bhupendra Jasani, a remote-sensing expert at Kings College, in London. For the most part, ‘’terrorists just want to create chaos.’’

Granted, terrorists may eventually be able to send smart missiles or smart bombs by combining overhead pictures with data from global-positioning satellites. But whether the target is the Pentagon, the White House or your house, getting the overhead pictures will be the easy part, with or without Ikonos. All in all, then, it seems safe to enunciate Rule No. 2: the coming generation of high-resolution commercial satellites won’t be a big boon for terrorists.

That is why the people trying to wrap their minds around the age of transparency are giving most of their thought to war between nations. One result is Rule No. 3: in your classic nuclear standoff, symmetrical transparency can lessen the chances of war.

‘’I’ve been in satellite imagery since 1962,’’ says Brian Gordon, who used to work for the Defense Intelligence Agency and whose company, Direct Information Access Corporation, analyzes pictures for Space Imaging and its competitors. ‘’I’ve seen the effect of our knowing what the Soviets were doing and vice versa.’’ After Soviet and American spy satellites went aloft in the early 1960’s, ‘’paranoia diminished.’’

To put the logic in a contemporary setting: if Pakistan knows that India isn’t mobilizing an assault and India knows the same about Pakistan, then, in theory, neither trigger finger will get defensively itchy, and if each side knows that the other side is watching, both will indeed be less likely to mobilize an assault.

Of course, if satellites gave you a clear view of your enemy’s missiles, you might start thinking you could wipe them out with a pre-emptive strike—that a nuclear war would be ‘’winnable.’’ Still, various real-world factors would make it hard to put much faith in such a strategy. For example, for all you know your victim might ‘’launch on warning’’ and retaliate as soon as your missiles were seen heading over the border.

For this and other reasons, it remains highly unlikely that a rational leader would gamble on a first strike. So long as that is true, what starts nuclear wars isn’t a nation deciding to attack, but rather a nation wrongly perceiving that it is under attack. And if warped perception is the problem, accurate information, capably interpreted, is part of the solution.

In the realm of conventional war, alas, warped perception isn’t the only problem. Conventional wars are winnable, a first strike thus rational and high-resolution targeting data potentially dangerous. Before invading Kuwait, Saddam Hussein bought imagery from the French SPOT satellites—a measly 10-meter resolution, but better than nothing. (France cut off Hussein’s access before the allied invasion.)

Of course, satellites can also help deter aggression, since troops massing on borders are vivid from above. Hence Rule No. 4: when it comes to conventional war, there are no simple rules. Transparency can plausibly be a tool for good or ill.

Even here, though, good may have an edge. Consider the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea. They are a place of perpetual argument among a half-dozen nations over who owns which chunk of land. China has done some stealthy construction work in a part of the Spratly Islands known (no kidding) as Mischief Reef, ostensibly to provide shelters for its fishermen. Last year the Philippine Government, another Spratly disputant, took aerial photos and noticed some oddities about this particular fishing-shelter-refurbishing project: new barrackslike structures and satellite receivers. And were those platforms by any chance gun emplacements?

The big question is whether China would have been less assertive had it known it was going to be on candid camera. As it happens, a partial answer was provided late last year by Representative Dana Rohrabacher, irrepressible Republican of California. The Congressman used a Philippine Government plane to fly over and take pictures of Chinese ships in the region. According to The Manila Times, China—having caught wind of the photo op—withdrew its major combat ships, though Rohrabacher did get pictures of several remaining vessels.

Unfortunately for world peace, Rohrabacher can’t spend all his time in a plane circling the Spratly Islands. But half a dozen high-resolution satellites could have the same effect.

Satellites have other advantages over airplanes, notes Baker, the policy analyst; he plans to use Ikonos imagery to test the hypothesis that commercial satellites could stabilize the Spratly Islands. Satellites aren’t intrusive—they can legally pass over anyone’s territory, which means that they don’t start incidents that start wars.

Baker is guardedly optimistic about transparency. Though it can help bad guys as well as good guys, it makes surprise harder, and the typical war’s inaugural surprise comes from the aggressor, not the victim. Of course, history is full of examples in which evidence of threatening maneuvers went unseen or misinterpreted or unpublicized. Witness America’s lack of alarm over Iraqi troops poised to invade Kuwait. Or its inability to anticipate India’s nuclear test last year. Or its apparent failure to make waves about China’s Spratly constructions, which it presumably saw. (The best U.S. spy satellites have resolutions measured in inches.)

But that’s the point. In the age of transparency, vigilance won’t rest solely on the shoulders of a Government that may or may not notice warning signs, may or may not interpret them correctly, may or may not choose to publicize them. For starters, there will be television networks and magazines to publicize fresh satellite imagery. There will also be issue-oriented groups eager to air data that further their cause. In the case of the Spratly Islands, the conservative Heritage Foundation played this role, happily posting Rohrabacher’s photos at Every issue has its Heritage Foundation, some nongovernmental actor—corporate, nonprofit, whatever—that wants to advertise misbehavior and might pay for the privilege. Armed with satellite shots, the Sierra Club could become a de facto enforcer of environmental treaties—or at least an aggressive embarrasser of noncompliant nations.

In a way, it’s just another step toward a global village. As the science-fiction writer David Brin stressed in his nonfiction book, ‘’The Transparent Society,’’ people in traditional villages know one another’s business, and it is precisely this lack of privacy that keeps them on good behavior. (Happily, the satellites that keep national leaders feeling naked before the world won’t have the same effect on the average citizen. Your neighbors can use a one-meter-resolution satellite to see if there’s a swimming pool in your backyard, but they can’t see who has been swimming there.)

All told, there seems to be grounds for formulating Rule No. 5: the age of transparency is a plus. Over time, it should help victims more than aggressors, prevent more wars than it starts and do an especially good job preventing nuclear wars. In this view—the view of the transparency enthusiast—the coming generation of commercial high-resolution satellites will become a vital global resource, a precious celestial membrane that could save the human species from itself.

You will search American space policy in vain for the phrase ‘’precious celestial membrane,’’ or for any grand plan to unite with other nations to protect outer space. The stated goal of the United States is to control space: to insure that America has the ability both to protect its own space assets and to destroy those of any other country.

This doctrine was spelled out last year in the report issued by the United States Space Command. It is a visionary tract that justifies itself in cosmic historical terms. ‘’As sea commerce advanced in the 18th and 19th centuries,’’ the report observes, ‘’nations formed navies to project power and to protect and enhance their commercial interests. Similarly, during the westward expansion of the continental United States, military outposts and cavalry emerged to protect our wagon trains, settlements and railroads.’’ And as outer space is commercialized . . . well, you get the picture.

Not noted in this manifesto is one big difference between sea and land on the one hand and space on the other. Space will increasingly house lots of sensitive satellites whose disruption might trigger the apocalypse; so turning it into a battlefield could be bad news.

This conclusion doesn’t depend on your buying Rule No. 5. Even if the growing reliance on eyes in the sky isn’t a net plus, the fact remains that the reliance is growing. And one thing everyone agrees on is that in a nuclear world, sudden widespread blindness is bad. It makes people edgy.

In some contexts, the Clinton Administration appreciates this logic. This New Year’s Eve, as Y2K dawns, computer glitches could stop the flow of satellite data to various nations. The Administration plans to gather officials from Russia, and perhaps from other nuclear powers, at a ‘’Center for Y2K Strategic Stability’’ in Colorado Springs, Colo. There the United States will share data coming in from its own Y2K-compliant systems. The idea is that it is in America’s interest to keep sudden blindness from afflicting other nations in time of peace.

Presumably, if this is in America’s interest on Jan. 1, 2000, it will be in America’s interest thereafter—an observation that raises some doubts about current policy. To wit: maybe the continued American development of antisatellite weapons (ASAT’s), by spurring an arms race, could expose the world’s satellites to catastrophic disruption. Maybe it would be a good idea to quit while we’re ahead, or at least while we’re not behind, if other nations will agree not even to enter the race.

Granted, verifying compliance with such a pledge would be tricky, to say the least. But that’s no excuse for ignoring the problem, which seems to be the Administration’s current frame of mind. The value and feasibility of an ASAT treaty—whether a ban on the weapons themselves or (more feasibly) a ban on testing them—is getting zero study in the arms control agency at the State Department.

In one sense, antisatellite weapons are no big deal. They are just one tool in the ‘’space control’’ arsenal, along with tactics like bombing satellite dishes and jamming satellites. Indeed, the White House itself, recognizing that such weapons are a messy form of space control, deems them a tool of last resort and keeps the ASAT program alive partly in deference to Congress’s Buck Rogers coalition, starring the Republican Senators Bob Smith of New Hampshire and Jon Kyl of Arizona.

Still, antisatellite weapons, however faint their profile in the space-control arsenal, serve as a sharp symbol of failure—the failure to acknowledge the basic drift of things these days. With satellites, as with economics and so much else, a nation’s sovereign control of its destiny is increasingly impractical, so control must be found in cooperation.

This isn’t left-wing woolly-minded one-worldism. Well, actually, it is. But its core logic isn’t exclusively left wing. Living testament to this fact is Henry Sokolski, a former adviser to Dan Quayle and now executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Sokolski is squeamish about transparency, bullish on antisatellite weapons and all for shutter control. But he realizes that unilateral shutter control is a futile game. Hence his woolly-minded multilateralist scheme: to forge an agreement with other nations under which we blind our satellites for them and they blind their satellites for us. One for all and all for one.

Nothing necessarily wrong with that. Even the average leftish transparency enthusiast realizes that there will be more wars, that some of those wars will be just and that during a just war symmetrical transparency is unfortunate. So most observers—left, right and center—accept that in wartime the United States would pull what strings it could peacefully and legitimately pull. And most think it would be nice to arrange in advance for coordinated string pulling—something the Administration is just starting to explore.

But for the leftish transparency enthusiast, this would be only the beginning of the multilateralist schemes. There would also be a continuing and comprehensive version of the Y2K strategic-stability center: a place where analysts from, say, India and Pakistan could confront one another with alarming images and request explanation, as well as consult with third-party analysts. Such crisis control centers—long advocated by Jasani, of Kings College—will grow more important as the Matt Drudges of the world start publishing ambiguous satellite images along with alarmist half-baked analysis.

Some leftish schemes would include a concerted supranational effort to protect the whole satellite system from any one disruptive nation. If that meant surrendering America’s prerogative to blind satellites unilaterally by shutter control, so be it. The idea is that the overall gain of preventing sudden apocalypse-inducing outages would dwarf the tactical edge lost in particular cases.

Actually, the United States could well lose that prerogative anyway. Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, has asked, What exactly is the difference between a satellite picture and regular photographs—you know, the pictures that the First Amendment gives newspapers the right to publish regardless of the Pentagon’s opinion of them? If her argument winds up in court and prevails there, the Government’s broad criteria for shutter control will be history; in order to close a satellite’s eyes, the White House will have to argue that there is a ‘’clear and present danger’’ to national security—and show it to a judge.

If the courts deem remote sensing a First Amendment issue, it isn’t just shutter control that could suffer. After all, blowing up satellites is an equally effective means of hampering this particular form of free speech. And that includes foreign satellites, if they have American customers. It could be that a few years from now part of America’s current strategic doctrine—the unilateral ‘’control of space’’—will be seen as unconstitutional. Not to mention a bad idea.