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With Everything About Spy Satellites Secret, What's Important? : Intelligence: By classifying every aspect of the reconnaissance satellite program, U.S. overuses the security system.

August 19, 1990|Jeffrey T. Richelson | Jeffrey T. Richelson is the author of "America's Secret Eyes in Space" (Harper & Row)

WASHINGTON — Saturday marks the 30th birthday of the National Reconnaissance Office. Created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as the central office for the procurement and operation of U.S. reconnaissance satellites, the NRO has been key in the development of the photographic and signals intelligence satellites that permit arms-control verification, crisis monitoring and the collection of a wide variety of vital intelligence.

But there will be no public ceremony or presidential proclamation. For the NRO does not, officially, exist. Just as in 1960, today's NRO is a "black" organization--its very existence is classified "Secret."

NRO's classified existence is interwined with the secrecy that surrounds the satellite reconnaissance program. But the justifications for this secrecy have lost much or all of whatever validity they had. Not only is such secrecy pointless, it is harmful.

Three major reasons have long been cited for maintaining this secrecy. One is that it preserves the ability of U.S. reconnaissance satellites to provide crucial intelligence on the Soviet Union and other areas of the world. Revealing the satellites' capabilities, it is argued, enables targets to avoid the eyes and ears of U.S. spy satellites.

A second argument for tight security has been concern for the sensibilities of other nations. In 1960, when the first U.S. reconnaissance satellites were launched, the Soviet Union threatened to shoot them down--just as it had shot down Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 earlier that year. Most U.S. national-security officials felt that one way to reduce chances of this was not to humiliate the Soviets by announcing that secret Soviet installations were being photographed by U.S. spy satellites.

Since then, the potential reaction of other nations has been added to the rationale. Former CIA Director William E. Colby said a prime obstacle to declassification was the "diplomatic objection that other nations would create difficulties if they were compelled to admit that many of their tightly protected secrets were in fact not secret at all."

The final rationale for total secrecy is an argument expressed by a Defense Department official: "Once we start answering questions and opening doors, where do we stop?" Making any information public creates a demand for more information, this argument goes, making it easier for individuals or organizations to ferret out truly sensitive material.

But these reasons are all easily challenged. While some aspects of current reconnaissance programs should remain secret, many other aspects--such as the designation of the different satellites, their mission and general capabilities--can be divulged without harm. For example, numerous U-2 and SR-71 photographs have been made public without compromising the aircraft.

The argument that the United States cannot officially release information about the reconnaissance program, especially photographs, because of foreign sensitivities had merit in 1960. But the Soviets have long since dropped their objection to satellite surveillance. Today, they sell photos produced by their older spy satellites,

In October, 1978, when President Jimmy Carter officially acknowledged the existence of the U.S. photographic reconnaissance satellite program, no paroxysms of protest resulted. In any case, the United States, the Soviet Union and China will not be the only participants in space reconnaissance. France, along with Spain and Italy, is developing the Helios military reconnaissance satellite. Israel is on its way to deploying a photo-reconnaissance satellite. India will probably be next. Germany and other countries are studying it. Nobody is complaining.

Even the argument that keeping all information classified is the best means of protecting important secrets is problematic. It is not clear that the best means of protecting secrets is to classify, classify, classify. Numerous observers, including government panels, have declared overclassification devalues secrecy. In addition, the wider the net of secrecy, the more difficult it is to protect genuinely important secret documents.

The rationale for declassifying the existence of NRO and information concerning the satellite reconnaissance program goes far beyond the argument that justifications for absolute secrecy are flawed. Absolute secrecy is harmful--it limits informed discussion of public policy and restricts the use of reconnaissance satellites for civilian purposes.

Some advocates of declassification have suggested satellite photography would allow the public to make more informed judgments. In 1985, former NRO Director Hans Mark wrote, "I believe that the American people should be informed about reconnaissance systems. It would it much easier for our political leaders to justify a number of important military and foreign-policy initiatives if people really knew what our adversaries around the world are doing."

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