Journalists denounce government 'shutter control' idea for satellite images
The Freedom Forum Online
ARLINGTON, Va. News-media representatives expressed concern yesterday over the broad wording of proposed government regulations that would restrict access to commercial satellite images if administration officials determine the pictures from outer space would compromise U.S. national security or foreign policy.
During a panel discussion that was part of a National Freedom of Information Day observance at The Freedom Forum, both Kathleen Kirby, counsel for the Radio Television News Directors Association, and Dan Dubno, a producer and technology expert for CBS News, said the guidelines drafted by the Commerce Department would unfairly keep the public from receiving important information.
"It's not the media's right, it's the public's right, and it's the public's right to information we've paid for," Dubno said.
The so-called "shutter control" guidelines allow the Commerce Department, which issues licenses to commercial ventures to launch the satellites and sell the high-resolution images, to declare certain transmissions off limits.
Mark Brender of Satellite Imaging said his company's licensing agreement requires the firm to tell the government where the satellite is at all times.
The secretary of commerce, with advice from the secretary of defense or the secretary of state, can "order us to restrict coverage" or declare that the shots be transmitted to the government and nowhere else, Brender said. He said his company would have no choice but to comply.
Marc Berkowitz of the Department of Defense said the administration considered shutter control to be a "safety valve ... when we need to protect the lives of our forces" operating abroad or in combat situations.
But Dubno said the way the regulations were worded, an objection from a foreign government leader to filming in a certain area could result in shutter control being imposed. The example he cited was a hypothetical objection from a Chinese official to filming the student protests in Tienanmen Square, which, if accepted by the State Department, would cut off satellite pictures of that event.
Gil Klinger of the National Reconnaissance Office said "these kind of debates over thorny policy issues become almost immediately polarized," but he stressed that most news-media usage of satellite images was not of concern to the government. However, "when U.S. forces are deployed operationally," Klinger said, "that's what we have to worry about" because the issues involve intelligence sources and methods and the security of military operations.
Dubno said the idea of a camera in the sky was no different from a camera anywhere else. In addition, he said, the government's restrictions could unfairly censor U.S. satellite-imagery companies, while other countries' satellites would still be able to photograph the areas in question.
"This is not a camera in America's air space. This is a camera in international air space," Dubno said.
Kirby, the RTNDA's lawyer, said in debates of this type, the press was frequently cast as "the bad guy" out to jeopardize the safety of U.S. troops. In fact, she said, the problem with the shutter-control regulations is that the wording is sufficiently broad to allow restriction of the satellite images if a single government official decides national security, foreign policy interests or international obligations may be compromised.
"What it means to me is the government can close it (the satellite) down under any pretense," Kirby said.
"The tension between national security, the media and freedom of the press is nothing new," Kirby said. "But [the proposal] raised hackles because [the regulations] ignored Supreme Court rulings" that force national-security concerns to be balanced against the First Amendment and the dangers of prior restraint.
"It leaves this decision solely in the hands of the executive branch," Kirby said.
Dubno said the satellite technology could help save lives by graphically tracing the path of natural disasters from tornadoes and hurricanes to landslides and showing their impact on everything from major population centers to refugee camps. It also can give better maps to U.S. troops and volunteer forces moving into disaster areas, he said.
"We have always been in the disaster business, telling America what's going on in the world," said Dubno. "For us, the capability of high resolution will enable us to tell these stories about things that Americans are interested in, particularly storms and hurricanes. … This material is stimulating a much greater ability to tell the public what's going on in areas of natural disasters."
Klinger acknowledged that the regulations were "far from perfect," but he said there would be opportunity to fine-tune them.
"We're going to road-test this. Things change. Wisdom's a function of time," Klinger said. "Our track record on this, albeit zig-zagging, albeit halting, has been toward the good."
Dubno said that Commerce Department officials had told him there would be another round of public comment on the shutter-control regulations.
"We hope that's true," he said.