Subscribe Today

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 1998, pages 21-22

Defense & Intelligence

U.S. Bans High-Resolution Imagery of Israel

By Shawn L. Twing

In an unexpected move that stunned the U.S. commercial satellite imagery industry, the United States government announced July 22 that American companies cannot distribute high-resolution satellite imagery of Israel. The decision, which apparently originated within the highest levels of the executive branch of the U.S. government, “marks the first step away from the open-skies policy that the U.S. and other countries have agreed to for more than three decades,” according to the Wall Street Journal. It also led to speculation within the U.S. commercial space imaging industry that the real motivation was not Israeli security, but “slowing down” U.S. progress in the field long enough for Israeli commercial competitors to catch up.

At a meeting with representatives of the top three American firms in the field—EarthWatch, Inc. (Longmont, CO), Space Imaging, Inc. (Thornton, CO), and Orbital Imaging, Inc. (Dulles, VA)—Commerce and State Department officials announced that U.S. companies will not be allowed to distribute one meter or better imagery of Israel (one meter resolution imagery makes objects as small as one square meter discernible). This decision, described as a “bolt from the blue” by Space Imaging CEO John Copple, contradicted earlier cabinet-level assurances to U.S. industry that previous attempts to limit imagery of Israel would not be enforced to the detriment of U.S. businesses.

It also threatens Space Imaging’s business interests in the Middle East and beyond. In January, Space Imaging announced the formation of Dubai Space Imaging, a joint venture with United Arab Emirates investors that includes a satellite ground receiving station in Dubai, the first of its kind in the Arab world. DSI plans to receive a variety of imagery from two Indian satellites before switching to the IKONOS-1 satellite scheduled for launch later this year, and the follow-up IKONOS-2, both of which are capable of one-meter imagery of the entire Middle East, including Israel.

According to knowledgeable sources, the decision to re-examine U.S. policy on commercial imagery of Israel came from the office of presidential National Security Adviser Samuel “Sandy” Berger after intense lobbying by several pro-Israel groups. This lobbying allegedly began after someone in the U.S. Department of State leaked to the Israeli Embassy that an American company had requested U.S. permission to describe, but not share, U.S. imagery capabilities with non-U.S. nationals for marketing purposes.

Earlier attempts to limit U.S. satellite imagery of Israel began with amendment 4321 attached to the 1997 Defense Authorization Act by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM). Entitled “Prohibition on Collection and Release of Detailed Satellite Imagery of Israel and Other Countries and Areas,” the so-called “Kyl-Bingaman” amendment was a watered-down attempt to limit U.S. commercial imagery of Israel. Included in that amendment was a vaguely worded prohibition on collecting and disseminating imagery of Israel “unless such imagery is no more detailed or precise than satellite imagery of the country or geographic area concerned that is routinely available from commercial sources.” (See the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 1996 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, on Middle East affairs, pp. 29, 100 for a full report).

The key to this amendment was the phrase “routinely available from commercial sources.” In a Nov. 20, 1996 letter to Gilbert Rye, president of Orbital Imaging, Inc., “Robert Winokur, assistant administrator for satellite and information services at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said Russia’s two-meter film-based imagery was deemed by U.S. government officials to be the qualitative equivalent of one-meter digital imagery” like that obtained by U.S. commercial remote sensing firms, the trade weekly Space News reported July 27. Russia currently markets that imagery in conjunction with Aerial Images, Inc. of Raleigh, NC, under the brand name Spin 2.

The letter sent to Gilbert Rye, and similar letters sent by NOAA to every major U.S. commercial satellite firm, were widely interpreted to mean that the baseline for what is commercially available was one-meter digital imagery. The widely held belief in the industry was that the Kyl-Bingaman amendment would not be enforced against U.S. firms that didn’t collect digital imagery of Israel below the one-meter threshold, which none of the major U.S. firms planned to do.

U.S. officials, however, told Space News that a recent U.S. government study concluded that there is no “readily and reliably available” one-meter resolution imagery, which set the stage for a significant reinterpretation of what resolution imagery can be deemed commercially available. One industry official countered that explanation saying that the U.S. government “did a study that supported conclusions” it had already reached.

The U.S. government’s rationale for preventing the collection and sale of one-meter resolution imagery of Israel by U.S. companies has become an all-too-familiar mantra from the United States government to justify virtually every controversial element of the U.S.-Israel relationship: to protect Israel’s security. Overlooked by this explanation is that safeguards already exist in the United States to protect the security of Israel (and other U.S. allies), while simultaneously protecting U.S. commercial interests.

Presidential Directive 23 (PD-23), signed March 9, 1994 by President Clinton, provides extensive safeguards for U.S. interests and the security of America’s allies related to U.S.-origin satellite imagery. PD-23 includes three important elements: shutter control, which allows the U.S. government to instruct commercial satellite firms to turn off their cameras; blackout zones which, when implemented, prevent imaging of certain geographic areas (e.g., U.S. allies or U.S. troops deployed abroad); and distribution control, which can limit the sale of high-quality imagery. In times of increased tensions in the region, when timely digital imagery would be most valuable to any of Israel’s potential enemies, effective mechanisms already exist to ensure that U.S. companies do not inadvertently jeopardize Israel’s security.

The U.S. as Gatekeeper

Recent efforts to limit high-resolution imagery of Israel also overlook the intent of PD-23 and other related U.S. legislation that was created to ensure that the United States will lead the world in this rapidly evolving technology. Given America’s demonstrated willingness to protect Israel’s national security interests, it is in Israel’s best interests for U.S. companies to act as gatekeepers of high-resolution imagery, particularly with the safeguards in place that could be used to protect Israel’s legitimate security interests. By not allowing U.S. firms to image Israel, however, the United States loses an element of control because there are other imagery suppliers on the world market, primarily France and Russia, who are far less concerned about Israel’s security interests. In the long run, “Israel’s security is best served by U.S. leadership in this field,” RAND space policy analyst Scott Pace told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

The security rationale also overlooks the crucial irony that Israel spies on its neighbors with its own satellite, the Ofeq-3, and has plans to launch a successor, the Ofeq-5, after the failed January launch of the Ofeq-4. Israel also has real-time access to U.S. imagery of the Middle East from a ground receiving station in Israel that collects data from American intelligence satellites, which undoubtedly is more useful for military purposes than commercially available imagery.

The security explanation also ignores the simple truth that Israel is far less threatened by its neighbors than its neighbors are threatened by Israel. Since 1981, Israel has bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor (1981), invaded and continuously occupied a section of Lebanon (1982), attacked the PLO headquarters in Tunisia using U.S. satellite imagery stolen by convicted spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard (1988), attacked Lebanon again, driving some 450,000 civilians from their homes and killing more than 100 civilians seeking refuge in a United Nations base (1996), and attempted to assassinate with a chemical weapon Khaled Meshal, a mid-ranking political official in Hamas based in Amman, Jordan. Israel also repeatedly has threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr, despite Iranian assurances that the reactor will be open to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Since the January 1998 delivery to Israel of highly advanced F-15I aircraft from the United States, Israel’s threats are far from hollow. The F-15I is capable of flying from Israel to Iran with 11 tons of weapons and flying back to Israel without refueling.

Israel’s demonstrated willingness to attack its neighbors begs the question: what countries in the Middle East are in real need of U.S. protection?

The recent U.S. government decision also displays a poor understanding of the value of commercial remote imagery as it relates to Israel’s security. Israel has large, fixed military assets in a relatively small country, and deploys its forces in areas often in view of its potential enemies (e.g., the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon). Details of Israel’s military posture and capabilities also are published regularly in publicly available sources. Jane’s Intelligence Review, for example, published a detailed analysis of the weaknesses of Israel’s nuclear weapons infrastructure, including low-resolution images of a nuclear weapons storage facility outside Tel Aviv, in its September 1997 issue.

There also are some 2.5 million Palestinians in Israel proper and the occupied territories, as well as hundreds of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians in Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon, who could easily provide high quality imagery of Israel’s national security assets with a hand-held camera.

In an earlier Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, article about congressional attempts to limit satellite imagery of Israel, the author speculated that commercial rather than security interests were Israel’s primary motivation for preventing U.S. imagery of Israel. In partnership with the American Core Software Technology firm, Israel is trying to enter the commercial imagery business by making Ofeq satellite images available on the Internet. That explanation was echoed by one leading U.S. industry official who told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, that Israel’s motivations are “all about slowing U.S. firms down long enough so Israel can go to market” with its imagery first.

Shawn L. Twing is the Web site developer for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, on Middle East Affairs.