Despite the war, commercial satellite photos of Iraq still for sale

Monday, March 24th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

At 10:30 most mornings, a private commercial satellite floats over Iraq, snapping pictures available for purchase by anyone not on a U.S. government watch list.

The detailed images can pinpoint U.S. military forces in Iraq and surrounding states. But the U.S. military doesn't seem worried that Saddam Hussein _ or a terrorist group _ might acquire such images.

``If he wanted it and was prepared to pay top dollar, he would get it,'' said John Pike, a military analyst with ``But precision intelligence isn't going to do you any good in the absence of precision weapons.''

During three months of war in Afghanistan last year, the Pentagon paid for exclusive access to images from the Ikonos satellite owned by Space Imaging, of Thornton, Colo. A second satellite with even higher resolution, QuickBird, has since been launched by Digital Globe of Longmont, Colo.

But for the Iraq war, the Pentagon has left the two U.S. companies free to sell their images to all comers _ except representatives from countries blacklisted by the State Department. French, Indian and Israeli companies also sell satellite imagery, none as sharp as what the U.S competitors offer.

``The technology is migrating from the black world of intelligence where it was shuttered for 40 years, to the white world of commerce,'' said Space Imaging's Mark Brender.

Journalists have used it to buy shots of U.S. military encampments in the Kuwaiti desert or the al-Udeid air base in Qatar where U.S. generals direct the war.

For that matter, Space Imaging will sell pictures of Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Virginia or the secret military installation in Nevada known as Area 51.

The only off-limits spot on the planet isn't even inside the United States. In 1997, Congress blocked U.S. companies from photographing Israel at a resolution higher than 2 meters.

``We can image every other place in the world,'' Brender said.

For example, Ikonos' 2-meter pictures of Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor aren't nearly as sharp as its .82-meter photos of North Korea's Yongbyon reactor. Both sites are associated with clandestine nuclear weapons development and are widely sought images.

Satellite photos with resolutions below a meter allow people to see cars or recognize individual homes. Military planners can use coordinates from such maps to calibrate satellite-guided weapons to destroy individual buildings.

But precious few militaries outside the United States can make use of guided missiles or bombs. Most, like the Iraqis, make do with merely lobbing them in the general direction of a target.

``They're not doing precision strikes on (U.S.) locations,'' said Rand technology analyst John Baker. ``They simply lack the capabilities.''

Also, satellite photos are too old for battle planning. By the time Iraq could get an image of, say, U.S. encampments in Kuwait, the American forces could be gone from that location.

At Space Imaging, a rush order for a new image takes between seven and 59 days, Brender said.

As Ikonos circles the globe from north to south, photographing the earth from 423 miles away, clouds and dust sometimes obscure the ground, delaying delivery of an image.

With hundreds of journalists reporting the U.S. military's every move, Saddam would be better off simply watching TV, Brender said.

At times, the commercial images have embarrassed the Pentagon.

In September, posted images of expansions underway at Qatar's al-Udeid air base, uncloaking the U.S. military buildup in the region.

In November, the Web site displayed photos of the curious domed shelters of the B-2 ``stealth'' bombers on the restricted Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, a British territory that prohibits visitors.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wasn't happy with the Qatar images being splashed over the Web, Pike said. But the Pentagon had apparently planned for the possibility because the photos show gear obscured by camouflage.

Despite such revelations, the U.S. government has become a huge customer.

Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet ordered government agencies to buy commercial imagery for mapping tasks, leaving the military's spy satellites to handle tougher intelligence jobs.

To request an Ikonos photo of a particular spot on the globe, it costs $3,000 to focus its camera on your geo-coordinates and another $29 per square kilometer of imagery.

Commercial satellite pictures aren't as detailed as the military's.

Digital Globe's top resolution is .6 meter. Space Imaging's is .82 meter.

Military satellites can see objects around 20 inches or smaller, but the precise resolution is classified.

In January, the Pentagon's satellite spy agency, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, signed a five-year deal to buy as much as $500 million in imagery from Space Imaging and Digital Globe, Brender said.