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Satellites Show a World of Secrets, to Rival Powers and Now the Press

November 09, 1986|James Bamford | James Bamford is the author of "The Puzzle Palace," an examination of the National Security Agency

ASHLAND, MASS. — In a well-guarded building a short distance from the White House, a small group of experts stands in front of a video screen, studying the latest high-resolution satellite photos of the Soviet Union's sensitive Kola Peninsula. There is an air of quiet excitement as detailed images of Severomorsk, headquarters of the Soviet northern fleet, come into view, followed by shots of the massive, heavily defended radar and strategic bomber base at Olenegorsknavy and the navy bomber base at Malyavr.

Until this year, such a scene could only take place within the thick walls of such intelligence agencies as the CIA, the DIA and the NSA. But now, as a result of advances in both civilian photographic satellites and computer enhancement of the images produced, that scene could just as well occur in the studios of the ABC, NBC, CBS or CNN.

For decades the intelligence agencies of the United States and the Soviet Union held a monopoly on photographic-espionage from space, the ability to obtain highly detailed photographs of objects and activities deep within another nation's borders. But with the new satellite technology now available, the distinction between espionage and news gathering grows increasingly blurred. The result is almost certain to mean increased tension between the news media and the intelligence community--national security versus freedom of the press.

In the late 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency secretly used U.S. aircraft to collect high-resolution photos of the Soviet Union. These aircraft, flying at an altitude of about 13 miles, took photographs with a resolution (the smallest object on the ground that can be distinguished) of about three feet. Following the downing of the U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers in 1960, the United States has relied on various generations of photo-reconnaissance satellites to monitor military, naval and space activities within Soviet borders. These satellites have flown as low as 70 miles and can send back pictures with better than six-inch resolution.

What those spy satellites show of Soviet offensive and defensive capabilities was always one of the intelligence community's most closely held secrets. Those without the highest security clearance were left with educated guesses based on an assortment of unclassified--and sometimes questionable--data. But last Feb. 21, a revolution in overhead photography took place with the launch of a civilian French satellite named SPOT. Its first images were sent back to earth in late April.

Orbiting at an altitude of 517 miles, SPOT can send images with a resolution of 33 feet. Through computer enhancement, the resolution can be 16 feet or less. A demonstration was held last June in Los Angeles. One observer was Lt. Gen. Eugene F. Tithe Jr., former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who said, "There are refinement techniques that allowed them to demonstrate the facial expressions of a small girl on the steps of the Los Angeles Trade Center."

The value to the news media of SPOT was demonstrated almost immediately: Among the first photos released were of Chernobyl, where the destroyed nuclear power plant and surrounding buildings were clearly distinguishable. Since then, SPOT has been used to photograph a variety of long-hidden Soviet facilities. On Aug. 4, ABC, CBS and CNN utilized computer-enhanced SPOT photography of the principal Soviet nuclear test site at Kazakhstan to show that the Soviets were preparing to end their year-long moratorium on underground nuclear testing.

Three weeks later, ABC aired photos of the Soviet Union's highly secret Baikonur Cosmodrome near Tyuratam. Clearly visible in photos of the space complex, nine times the size of Kennedy Space Center, was the 3.5-mile shuttle landing runway, complete with painted lines. In October, the National Geographic Society used satellite photos to produce a detailed map of the Soviet space and missile base at Plesetsk.

Several weeks ago, a Swedish firm that specializes in processing the SPOT photography offered to sell U.S. television networks a 10-minute, high-resolution video tape giving the West its first look at Soviet military facilities along the Kola Peninsula. "It opens up with a 3-D computer enhancement," said Mark E. Brender, national security assignment editor for ABC News who took part in negotiations. "You're flying over the water and then you fly into a fiord and you turn and the Soviet base unfolds in front of you . . . . It jumps out at you. And we're dealing not with graphics mind you, we're dealing with reality. And they want to sell that tape to us for $15,000."

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