How a US general wants tougher controls on the world’s commercial satellite imagery providers (but only over the US and its allies, haha)

‘Google Earth’ a Potential Space Threat is the ominous title, dated March 14 2008. Where might this shot across the bow come from? Nationalist-conservative hacks in India? Irate Bahraini princes? A desperate despot in Zimbabwe?

Try the news on, “the largest [US] military and veteran membership organization”. The article’s uncritical tone centers around this paragraph:

Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel [who manages space and missile systems development for the Air Force] told Military reporters at a March 11 breakfast meeting in Washington he is pressuring [US] domestic licensing authorities to force satellite imagery providers to reduce the resolution of their images in areas where American troops are engaged, or to delay their image feed so that an adversary can’t get up-to-the-minute information on U.S. and allied military moves.

Who gave him the right to try to dictate public policy like that? Hamel seems to have forgotten that US law already gives the government “shutter control” over US commercial remote imaging companies, preventing them from taking images of US troop maneuvers or sensitive deployments and determining the timing of their release. It’s Hamel’s job to abide by that policy, not to concoct one he’d prefer and try to ram it down the throats of civil servants.

What’s new is that Hamel would like to be able to arbitrarily reduce the resolution of satellite imagery. One reason such a constraint has never been placed on US imagery providers like DigitalGlobe is that other non-US commercial providers would sell it instead, and legally so, not being bound by US law. Hamel knows this, of course, and that’s why he comes up with this splendidly exceptionalist counter-argument:

But international commercial operators who aren’t beholden to any U.S. laws might balk at protecting America’s security interests in the face of cold hard cash. [The bastards!] So Hamel hopes to either beat them into space and edge them out of the neighborhood, or cajole them into sticking to the American licensing standards.

“It’s part of our national interest to ensure that we set the conditions not only for U.S. companies but also set some of the norms in terms of how systems on an international or allied basis are used,” he added.

Ironically, the Indian government is trying to get the UN to do something just like it, except for all counties, not just the US. Then we’d just have to ask North Korea or Sudan for permission before taking a snapshot of their dirty laundry. Perhaps Hamel is angling for an ambassadorship in New York?

PS. Hamel isn’t the first one trying to put the genie back in the bottle. Back in May 2007 the director of the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), Vice Admiral Robert Murrett, attempted something similar, despite there being a clear and generous US policy in place promoting the widest possible distribution of imagery for the common good.

2 thoughts on “How a US general wants tougher controls on the world’s commercial satellite imagery providers (but only over the US and its allies, haha)”

  1. Current US law limits the resolution of commercial satellite imagery to 0.5m and also delays its release for 24 hours after capture. So I have no idea how an enemy could get up to the minute information on the location of forces.

  2. Im shure all he wants it to put a quality limit on US military bases and delay the immage release for 6 months to 1 year. This would keep recent quality immagery ot of enemy hands.

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