WASHINGTON — Millions of top secret spy satellite photographs will be released under an order President Clinton is expected to sign in coming weeks, providing an information windfall that could help determine the extent to which oceans are fouled, deserts are expanding and rain forests are disappearing.
If Clinton approves the longstanding but controversial proposal, it will declassify all the satellite photographs taken from 1960 to 1972 and provide scientists with an unprecedented historical record of what the Earth looked like 35 years ago.
The photographs were taken by six generations of early spy satellites, starting with the still secret Keyhole 1, an Air Force satellite that snapped photographs and returned film canisters to Earth by parachute.
By contrast, the Advanced Keyhole satellites, three-story tall automated telescopes in low Earth orbit, use television cameras that broadcast images instantaneously to photographic analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. spy shops.
The executive order has been delayed, however, by industrial and national security advocates leery of the Clinton Adminstration's campaign for openness. One concern is that declassifying old photographs will become a slippery slope that leads to unwanted disclosures about the capability of modern systems.
Starting in 1992 under a proposal by Vice President Al Gore, then a Tennessee senator, a task force of about 80 environmentalists examined how the photographs might be used, concluding in a top secret report that they represented an important scientific and historical resource.
"The possibility of getting satellite data is very intriguing and very exciting," said Daniel Hillel, a hydrologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who has written 17 books on the environment. "Is there real evidence of climate changes? Are the effects of drought reversible? What about clearing of the forests, overgrazing of grasslands, damming of rivers? If we had satellite imagery of a global nature, we could better assess the state of the Earth."
Aerospace experts have argued that the old photographs have little national security value and would reveal almost nothing about the capability of today's generation of spy satellites. Today's satellites reportedly can depict objects six inches or smaller.
The oldest Keyhole satellites could reveal objects 460 feet in size, but the later KH-6 could reveal objects six feet in size--resolution fine enough for environmentalists to examine individual trees, rivers, buildings and ocean plant life, according to White House officials.
The KH-6, developed by the CIA in the mid-1960s, marked a breakthrough. Each satellite carried two cameras produced by Itek Systems, now owned by Woodland Hills-based Litton Industries, that were capable of taking stereoscopic pictures covering thousands of square miles. The cameras were equipped with three-foot-diameter reels holding thousands of feet of film.
Development of these early spy satellites have gone largely unheralded, even though they are credited with keeping a lid on the Cold War. When U.S. officials feared that the Soviet Union had achieved nuclear superiority, the satellites revealed that no "missile gap" existed.
Albert D. Wheelon, the father of spy satellites who was recently awarded a CIA medal, has compared the development of these systems to the Apollo program both in technical complexity and in their impact on the Cold War.
"These two great technical systems proceeded in parallel, one in utmost secrecy and the other on national television," said Wheelon, former deputy CIA director and former Hughes Aircraft chairman. "The Apollo program generated public confidence in American technological prowess and the overhead reconnaissance programs generated presidential confidence."
Since the photographs in the CIA's archives are so secret, it is difficult to know exactly how they will be used. Clearly, many photographs may be of little help to scientists, since they focus on missile silos and aircraft factories in Russia, China and Eastern Europe.
But photographs are believed to exist for almost every region of Earth. Although the CIA is barred by law from spying on the United States, at least some images were taken of U.S. territory to test and calibrate satellite cameras, informed experts said.
A White House spokeswoman said that an executive order declassifying the photographs is expected within the next several weeks, after the proposal is circulated through federal agencies for comment and review.
Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, who helped push the proposal before stepping down recently, said in an interview that he expects few roadblocks.
"I don't think there is a problem," Woolsey said. "It is a matter of time and getting the paperwork done. It was a complicated problem. A lot of things had to be worked through."