Revoke the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, already

Checkpoint Jerusalem has a longer excerpt of the Yedioth Ajronoth article (covered previously) lamenting the advent of expanded high-resolution coverage of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank in Google Earth. One further paragraph in that article needs correcting:

Locating sensitive strategic and security installations in Israel is a central goal for such countries as Iran and Syria. The ability of Arab states to collect information is fairly limited, mainly with regard to collecting military intelligence using sophisticated technology. Up until now these countries had to rely on superpowers or on commercial companies, which usually sold them low resolution images. This, incidentally, explains the great advantage Israel had against the enemy when it built its own independent ability to launch espionage satellites.

The imagery sold commercially to all comers by the French, the Russians, by DigitalGlobe and others has been at two-meter resolution for years. The only thing that’s changed is that the cost of acquiring it by the public has now gone to zero, thanks to Google — and money is one thing that Israel’s enemies haven’t lacked. Meanwhile, the intelligence services of some countries hostile to Israel have most certainly had access to much higher resolution satellite imagery, which is shared easily enough with militant extremists.

Until Google Earth came along, the only people without easy access to high resolution imagery of the world’s military installations were those who aren’t obsessed by them — average citizens. The national security establishments of the world may not like their newfound public nakedness, but that is not sufficient reason for them to claim that they should not be subject to the scrutiny of the public. Until recently, the world’s security and military institutions were only subject to each other’s scrutiny and to that of non-state actors with a grudge and access to funding. A public informed by satellite imagery is not an additional military threat — though it may pose a political challenge. And that would be a Good Thing ™, because militaries are necessary evils that may, without proper public scrutiny, outlive or outgrow their usefulness, like any bureaucracy.

When it comes to Israel, there is the additional issue of needing to justify the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment to the US National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997, which forbids US remote sensing operators from selling imagery of Israel at resolutions that are higher than what’s available commercially elsewhere in the world — currently 2 meters per pixel. No other country in the world enjoys such protection. What is it about the nuclear research complex at Dimona that makes it more worthy of censorship than Three Mile Island?

The justification is that Israel, a small nation surrounded by hostile neighbors, is an easy target for short-range missiles in a way that a mall or US military installation in Missouri is not — georeferenced satellite imagery provides idiot-proof access to the coordinates of targets inside Israel. But the problem with this line of arguing is that 2-meter resolution imagery is already accurate enough for such targeting. In fact, 15-meter resolution imagery is sufficient, because the missiles that these coordinates would be used for have an accuracy of less than 15 meters. If the resolution of this imagery were to increase from 2 meters to 50 centimeters, nothing new would be given away in terms of targeting information — everybody already knows the precise coordinates of the nuclear reactor in Dimona, for example.

What 50 centimeter resolution imagery of Israel would give away is the same kind of information that 50 centimeter resolution imagery all over the world gives away — and the immense public benefits that come from it. If US bases all over the world can be at 50 centimeter resolution in Google Earth without the US military hyperventilating, then the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment begins to look like an anachronism from the days when satellite imagery was still an expensive and exclusive proposition. Furthermore, the amendment’s continued use in the case of Israel reënforces the arguments of those critics who fault Israel for undue influence in US foreign policy, which makes it impossible for the US to play the honest broker in Middle East peace initiatives.

But the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment is also a threat to those who advocate public scrutiny of all the militaries of the world, because it provides a slippery slope towards arbitrary censorship of US remote sensing imagery. A fascinating paper by Michael R. Hoversten from the Winter 2001 edition of the US Air Force Law Review, “U.S. national security and government regulation of commercial remote sensing from outer space“, delves deeply into the implications of the amendment. It’s worth excerpting at length (italics added for emphasis):

In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed a law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997 restricting the collection and dissemination of imagery with respect to Israel. [127] Under this law, commonly referred to as the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, private remote sensing operators may not be licensed to sell imagery regarding Israel unless the imagery to be sold is no more detailed or precise than that routinely available from other commercial sources. [128] “Pursuant to that law, the Department of [C]ommerce will make a finding as to the level of detail or precision of satellite imagery of Israel available from commercial sources.”[129] At a minimum, the Department of Commerce reviews non-U.S. commercially available imagery on an annual basis. Its findings will be in the Federal Register.[130] At present, the best resolution available from other commercial sources is approximately two meters. [131]

To obtain an operating license, private remote sensing operators must submit a plan explaining how its proposed system will comply with these restrictions. [132] Hence, while private companies such as Space Imaging Inc. are technically capable of producing imagery with better than one-meter resolution, they cannot sell such imagery regarding Israel. Beyond this, the President of the U.S. has the power under the law to designate other countries or geographic areas as falling under the same policy. There are no restrictions or guidelines as to when or under what circumstances the President may make such designations. Presumably, the President would exercise his prerogative for national security or foreign policy reasons but the law places no such restrictions on any designation.

It seems unlikely that the U.S. will significantly back away from its Open Skies policy unless national and world security concerns dictate otherwise. However, the passage of the 1997 Defense Authorization Act opens the door to such a scenario. In 1996, imagery with one-meter resolution was not available on the commercial market. With the currently available high-resolution imagery, it is likely that countries are much more concerned about the dissemination of commercial imagery today than they were four years ago. The problem the U.S. may soon have to contend with is States other than Israel demanding equal treatment. This could pose competitive problems for the U.S. commercial remote sensing industry as well as foreign relations problems for the U.S. Government. In the near future, the U.S. may well be faced with the choice of either abolishing the policy regarding Israel or extending the policy to other States.

Boy am I sure that the Indian government is happy I found that passage for them. If you are at all interested in such matters, there is much more elsewhere in the article — for example, Hoversten predicts that:

Due to the increasing availability of commercial imagery, the international community may conclude that to protect both national and world security interests, the creation of some type international shutter control is in order.

And that is precisely what India has been agitating for. An Indian official now at the UN made that argument explicitly back in 2006, when it was blogged here.

The best thing that can happen is for the US government to unambiguously recommit to its “Open Skies” policy for commercial satellite imagery and support increased global transparency for the simple reason that it is a boon for democracy movements and governmental accountability everywhere. Revoke the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, already.

11 thoughts on “Revoke the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, already”

  1. I’m not sure that 15 meter accuracy on missiles means that higher resolution is less helpful. Higher resolution can help spot decoy structures and camouflage that might not have been targeted at all before. It might also help identify more areas where hitting anything within a 15 meter radius might do damage.

    That said, the amendment only bolsters critics who claim Israel has too much leverage in US politics. I agree it should go. Israel can improve its defenses as needed, as it always has.

  2. You’re right regarding decoys, though I suspect that 15m resolution imagery, when used to georeference existing maps, is sufficient for targeting. In any case, I don’t think 2m resolution imagery is blurry enough to make decoys look convincing.

  3. Regardless of existing accuracy of the imagery — the one thing that they never point-out in all their paranoia, is the fact that Google Earth, Maps, or most of the now ‘mainstreamed’ mapping apps — lack metadata.

    For this reason, primarily — what it points-out, is that in order to use these public forms of data — solely based on the accuracy probabilities (and if they know anything about anything regarding targeting logistics) — it would take a substantial sized weapon to ensure placement on a target, if the intent is to destroy a target.

    Who has the capability for such weapons, one has to remind oneself.

    15m accuracy dictates the probability of a tolerance offset in several hundred meters compounded from a point of interest. In targeting terms — you cannot place the monkey in the barrel with that kind of data.

    The only alternative for a rogue entity to use such data, is for first round analysis to ‘interpret’ potential targets. From there, it would require substantial ground support for obtaining more accutate GPCs for any amount of targeting accuracy.

    And even then… If the imagery is outdated — you’ve sent someone out on a wild goose chace to locate what they suspected was a target. Creating potential for them to get caught by their ground activities, bringing them out in the open, etc.

    Now if, say, the intent on the part of the rogue entity was to do mass casualty damage based on a general coordinate. Well, now you have something to argue. BUT — general position of a weapon of such a magnitude can be placed simply by knowing a general location of where a facility is — or whatever that target may be. You can purchase a paper map, you can look it up in books, at the library, ask questions at the local bar or gas station. You can get a very general point of target positioning based on very basic, unsophistocated information.

    But again… How many entities in this world even have access to the kinds of devices necessary to carry out such an effort?

    Ahhh, the paranoia.

  4. I suppose I could expand on that comment a little by pointing out some obvious facts.

    All of the attacks made against countries such as Israel, the United States, or US targets (the Cole) — have been direct efforts in very basic intelligence, and very basic devices and missions.

    For the more militant example — it did not take Hezbollah installments in the south of Lebanon to utilize very sophistocated weaponry to shake-up Israel and cause chaos, did it? No. Rocket launchers simply lobbing into very general areas in Israel is all it took to light-up the Israeli defenses and to take action against those threats.

    It didn’t take a very sophistocated bomb to rip a massive hole in the side of the USS Cole — did it? It didn’t take a very sophistocated approach to hijack a plane and drive it into skyscrapers, did it?

    What is the lesson? Those who are carrying out such attacks, are doing it based on a feeling of a necessity. Thus, with necessity come some of the most unsophistocated ways in order to acheive a primarily objective.

    They have limited resources.

    They have limited weaponry.

    They have limited man-power.

    They are like a bad dandruff problem, and nothing more.

    Yet, they’ve managed to make everyone turn the world upside down.

    In that sense — they won.

  5. Good-ole arm chair quarterbacks. So how may years of service? What MoS? Security clearances? Access to all the facts(which no one person has access to or even capable of)? I bet not.

    I’m so glad we all have ass-holes, so everyone can have an opinion. Even me.

    Do y’all live under similar threats as do the people in Israel? No you don’t. We don’t need to make their lives anymore threatened by radical nut-jobs.

    Decoys? They suppose to build entire fake cities and/or neighborhoods? Settled with fake people or robots?

    Are y’all semi-mouthpieces for someone?

    And Dan, your last few statements show you have no clue what you are talking about. Keep reading your Mother Jones, DailyKos, and the other mindless dribble.

    Bad dandruff, hahaha!! I could only wish it was true. It may be eventually, right now they are multiple boils on the body. Maybe even more, we are not sure, still finding out.

    Limited resources, limited weaponry, and limited man-power? What are you smoking? They may not have the full resources of a nation-state or states, at least not yet. They have limited resources in certain geographic areas, but their resources are not limited overall. You would be surprised by the amount of resources they can pool and where those resources can come from. We are trying to impact their abilities, but we still have too many people getting in the way.

    And Stefan, I wouldn’t bad mouth all militaries and call them evil, some are, not all. In particular, the US military isn’t the big bad boogey man they are made out to be by leftist. You are soooo wrong. I’m not going to bother trying to straighten it out. It would take too much time and sadly a waste of time for some.

    Yes there are bad-apples in the military. Just like every where in life. A few bad-apples don’t spoil the bunch. The same with countries. Do a few bad-apples mean the entire country is a lost?

    One day, hopefully not soon, you will need the militaries services. In your home country they may be needed to expel all the trouble y’all have imported. But by then, people who think like yourself, may have successfully disbanded the military. In that case, bye, bye the good people of Sweden.

    Thinking of Sweden, do they have similar laws to Norway? The reason I ask is,

    Sad, sad. Let the inmates run the asylum.


  6. And one other thing.

    “Who has the capabilities for such weapons, one has to remind oneself”.

    I take that as a swipe againts the US and others.

    To clue you in, Syria, Iran and North Korea has the capablility to do such. And they sure don’t mind helping others do the same. One could even argue Russia lends a helping hand in those matters too.

    So far, nation states have been fearful to “directly and fully” help these radical groups. But that is slowly changing.


  7. Hi Kos:

    – I lived in Israel for 3 months in 2002. Main fear then, as now, was being blown up by a suicide bomber at a mall. Google Earth didn’t exist then, and wouldn’t make a difference now.

    – One way you can tell the bad militaries from the good militaries is by having public scrutiny of said militaries.

  8. Very true Stefan. Here in the US, there is alot of public scrutiny of our military. The problem arises where some stuff needs to be secret and people don’t seem to recgonize it. Not everything the military does should be open to public scrutiny, not immediately. Maybe decades down the road.

    As for Israel. The threat has evolved beyond a just sucide bombers. I don’t think you are painting a complete picture. The public may be only worried about one thing. Generally the public isn’t the best gauge of reality.

    For example, here there is a uproar about property taxes. And the public blames the Governor and state govt. Where as the true blame resides with local govts. 99% of property taxes go to local govt and local govt has the ability to raise or lower those taxes. Not the state. So who is right the public?

    I assume you heard about the nuke site in Syria? And another site in Syria where the chemical warhead failed and killed a bunch of techinicans? Or even all the improvements they(those groups) have made to the various rockets used?

    Who knows what else they have up their sleeves. Like those Russian anti-tank weapons or those Chinese anti-ship weapons. I wonder how those “groups” got their hands on the weapons? When the were supposedly bought for and only used by the Syria military.

    It’s not someone with a bomb now. It’s much bigger than that.


  9. It’s not telling someone whether or not they have a clearance is a issue(vast majority of the time, always exceptions). It’s talking period about a certain subjects, while having a current clearance, is a issue.

    Ask some of those scientist who went to a conference in China. It’s what they didn’t say, so to speak, is what got their clearance removed. This was 6 or so years ago, iirr.

    My point was in asking and bring the others questions up. Those “in a better positions to known”, have a better understanding of what is going on compared to the rest of us who use open sources or even who never ever been in those fields(military, intelligence and the like).

    As for myself, I don’t have a clearance or ever did. I do have about 14 years of military experience, being born and raised in that outfit. With my grandparents and dad, there is over 70 years of experience. Even to this day, my dad can’t talk about his service 18 years after Vietnam. He can about Nam, but choses not to. Which is fine, gives me a excuse to research where we/he have been and start to put 2 and 2 together.


  10. One thing I left out. The questions about service, clearance, and the like which I posed earlier wasn’t direct at one individual. Sorry if I didn’t clarified that better and earlier.


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