WASHINGTON -- The secretive National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is rushing to get the latest, high-definition satellite photos of Afghanistan into the hands of U.S. ground troops as they ramp up operations in the country's tangled terrain.
The NGA analysts aren't tapping the government's huge network of highly classified spy satellites; they're getting the pictures from commercial vendors. That's the same stuff pretty much anyone can get, either through free, online programs, such as Google Earth, or by buying it from the same companies supplying Uncle Sam.
It's a remarkable turn, given the warnings that security experts in the USA and worldwide raised a few years ago about giving the entire planet — terrorists and rogue states included — access to high-resolution satellite photos once available only to superpowers.
Last month, the most powerful commercial satellite in history sent its first pictures back to Earth, and another with similar capabilities is set for launch in mid-2009. The imagery provided by those and other commercial satellites has transformed global security in fundamental ways, forcing even the most powerful nations to hide facilities and activities that are visible not only to rival nations, but even to their own citizens.
Although no one disputes that commercial imagery poses threats, it has been embraced in ways few predicted.
"It's created a lot of opportunities to do things we couldn't do with (classified) imagery," says Jack Hild, a deputy director at NGA, which provides imagery and mapping for defense and homeland security operations.
Pictures from government satellites are better than commercial photos, but how much better is a secret. Only people with security clearances generally are allowed to see them. Using commercial products, intelligence agencies can provide imagery for combat troops, which wasn't possible before because of the risk of it reaching enemy hands and even international coalition partners.
Federal agencies use commercial imagery to guide emergency response and inform the public during natural disasters, such as this year's Hurricane Ike. It's also used by government scientists to monitor glacial melting and drought effects in the Farm Belt.
When commercial satellite photos first hit the market, "the gut reaction was, 'We can't allow this imagery to be out there because someone might do us harm with it,' " Hild says. "Are there still bad things that people can do with commercial imagery? Absolutely … but we think the benefits far outweigh the risks."
Other nations share the sentiment. U.S. and foreign government contracts provide critical income for commercial imagery companies, such as Digital Globe and GeoEye — both of which supply photos for Google Earth.
"Most of our revenue (is) from governments," says Mark Brender, vice president of GeoEye, which got half its 2007 revenue from the U.S. government and 35% from foreign governments. "They have a core competency in understanding how to use this technology — and a national security imperative to do so."
In August 2006, the Islamic Army in Iraq circulated an instructional video on how to aim rockets at U.S. military sites using Google Earth.
Posted on a jihadist website, the video showed a computer using the program to zoom in for close-up views of buildings at Iraq's Rasheed Airport, according to an unclassified U.S. intelligence report obtained by USA TODAY. The segment ended with the caption, "Islamic Army in Iraq/The Military Engineering Unit — Preparations for Rocket Attack."
The video appeared to fulfill the dire predictions raised by security experts in the USA and across the globe when Google began offering free Internet access to worldwide satellite imagery in 2005. Officials in countries as diverse as Australia, India, Israel and the Netherlands complained publicly that it would be a boon to terrorists and hostile states, especially since the pictures often provide a site's map coordinates.
Indeed, some terrorist attacks have been planned with the help of Google Earth, including an event in 2006 in which terrorists used car bombs in an unsuccessful effort to destroy oil facilities in Yemen, according to Yemeni press reports. Images from Google Earth and other commercial sources have been found in safe houses used by al-Qaeda and other terror groups, according to the Pentagon.
Many security experts say commercial imagery does little to enhance the capabilities of such organizations.
"You can get the same (scouting) information just by walking around" with a map and a GPS device, says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a research organization specializing in defense and intelligence policy. The imagery "may give someone precise coordinates (for a target), but they need precise weapons … and their ability to target discrete parts of a particular site is pretty limited. People who think this gives you magical powers watch too many Tom Clancy movies."
Nonetheless, the world's governments have taken a variety of steps in response to the emergence of Google Earth and other commercial imagery sources, according to a confidential report issued in July by the CIA's Open Source Center and made public by the Federation of American Scientists. Among them:
•Negotiation. Some nations have asked Google and other companies to keep certain images off the market, the report says. For example, Google Earth uses older imagery of parts of Iraq based on British concerns about exposing military sites. Some commercial imagery providers -- typically those providing pictures from planes, not satellites -- blur sensitive images before they are provided to Google, usually in accordance with local law or at the request of local authorities.
•Bans. China has barred websites selling "unapproved" commercial imagery, according to the report. In 2006, Bahrain officials banned Google Earth, but the CIA report notes that the move may have been mainly to "prevent exposure of elaborate residences and land holdings of the country's rich."
•Buying in. Several countries, such as China and Thailand, are getting into the satellite imagery business themselves, and India sells its spy photos commercially, the report says. Many countries that lack their own satellite capability have become enthusiastic purchasers of commercial imagery to meet intelligence and security needs.
•Evasion. Many countries have stepped up efforts to conceal sensitive facilities, either by putting them underground or camouflaging them, the report says. Others, such as India, have improved their ability to discern when satellites pass overhead, which allows them to conduct sensitive military activities when cameras aren't watching.
"We actively engage with organizations and governments … to strike a balance between their security concerns and the needs of the end user," says Chikai Ohazama, Google Earth's product management director. Sensitive sites often are obscured by satellite operators before Google even gets the imagery, he adds. It often doesn't matter "because the imagery already is available from other places."
The number of sources for satellite imagery continues to grow, fueled not only by government customers in the USA and worldwide, but by an explosion in public usage.
This month, GeoEye launched the most advanced commercial satellite yet — able to distinguish home plate on a baseball field — and the NGA paid half the $475 million cost. Digital Globe will launch a satellite with similar resolution and other new capabilities next year on its own dime.
The use of commercial imagery relieves some of the burden on the U.S. government's classified satellite network, says Rick Oborn, spokesman at the National Reconnaissance Office, which runs the system.
"We're oversubscribed," Oborn says, noting that intelligence and security missions get priority and often need the higher resolution and quicker returns offered by the government's own satellites. "Anytime the broader area stuff can be taken commercially, so much the better."
The appetite for commercial imagery from the general public continues to grow as more people realize the technology has uses far beyond picking out your home on Google Earth.
Non-governmental organizations have used commercial imagery to show devastating attacks on villages in Darfur by the Janjaweed militia. Security experts have used it to show development of new missile bases in North Korea. Environmentalists have used it to document effects of global warming.
"In a way, those sort of things also have a lot to do with national security," says Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists. "It's an extraordinary tool (for) bringing transparency to government. … And it's here to stay."