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.  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.  “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.” 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. At present, the best resolution available from other commercial sources is approximately two meters. 
To obtain an operating license, private remote sensing operators must submit a plan explaining how its proposed system will comply with these restrictions.  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.