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Inside Information

By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 1999

Two lawmakers from opposite ends of the intelligence spectrum, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), introduced legislation last week that would create a nine-member board to oversee the declassification of historical government documents ''of extraordinary public interest.''

''Secrecy, in the end, is a form of regulation,'' said Moynihan, who once proposed abolishing the CIA. ''And I concede that regulation of state secrets is often necessary to protect national security. But how much needs to be regulated after having aged 25 years or more?''

Goss, a former CIA operations officer who now chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the new panel, which would be be called the Public Interest Declassification Board, would preside over ''a more orderly way to get classified information out to the public.''

All classified government documents are supposed to be automatically declassified after 25 years under an executive order signed by President Clinton in 1995, but the process is anything but automatic and hasn't stopped the president and Congress from calling for a string of special declassification initiatives.

The proposed declassification board would oversee and manage these special requests, like Clinton's February directive ordering federal government agencies to declassify all documents relating to human rights violations and political violence in Chile from 1968 to 1990.

The board, appointed by the president, would be comprised of experts in history, national security, foreign policy, social science or law from outside the government. The board would have the power to recommend specific declassification initiatives to the head of the National Archives, who would have to notify Congress if he decided not to accept a recommendation from the board.

''A poll taken in 1993 found that three-quarters of those surveyed believed that President Kennedy was assassinated by a conspiracy involving the CIA, renegade elements of our military, and organized crime,'' Moynihan said. ''The Grassy Knoll continues to cut a wide path across our national consciousness. The classified materials withheld from the Warren Commission, several of our actions in Vietnam, and Watergate have only added to the American people's district of the federal government.''

But Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, called the Moynihan-Goss legislation ''woefully misconceived'' and said it would actually detract from broad government declassification by diverting funds to its own special initiatives.

Aftergood also said the bill provides no criteria for agencies to follow in declassifying information and no enforcement power for the board to use against agencies that fail to fully abide by its recommendations.

''Sen. Moynihan has made openness and secrecy a cause in the way no one else has,'' Aftergood said. ''And it pains me in not being able to endorse this legislation, because this is his last shot.'''

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) has embarked on an ambitious new project to ''digitize'' the globe, creating vast computer data bases so that commanders, analysts and spies can generate battle maps, satellite imagery and 3-D computerized terrain simulations all over the world whenever they need it.

NIMA officials say they are working to produce a data base of high-resolution satellite imagery of 25 percent of the earth's land mass by the end of Fiscal 2005, thanks in part to the availability of high-resolution commercial imagery from Space Imaging Inc.'s recently launched IKONOS satellite. The stored imagery detailed enough to show white lines on a city street will be geo-referenced and suitable for targeting, meaning exact coordinates can be derived for anything depicted.

NIMA is also working with NASA on a space shuttle mission to be flown early next year that will produce terrain elevation data covering 80 percent of the earth's land mass using radar imaging at 30 meter resolution. That means analysts will have precise elevation readings of the earth's surface at points no more than 30 meters apart.

The space shuttle will take radar images of the earth from two vantage points, using one camera in its cargo bay and another at the end of a 200-foot mast extending out from the shuttle like a long, thin wing. Combining the two images produces 3-D pictures, which in turn produce 3-D terrain videos pilots can use to ''fly through'' their missions on a computer screen.

NIMA officials say they have already established a dissemination system to put satellite pictures purchased from Space Imaging in the hands of military and intelligence users in 34 locations, from Hawaii to the Caribbean, within 24 hours of the time the IKONOS satellite beams them back to earth for processing.

NIMA will retransmit the Space Imaging satellite photos over a satellite link it will be sharing with the Social Security Administration. Transmitting satellite imagery takes enormous capacity, or band width, according to NIMA officials. A typical 280 megabyte file will take only about 15 minutes to transmit over this shared satellite link, they said. To send it over the Internet, by contrast, would take 12 hours.

The new commercial imagery has a resolution of one meter, meaning objects one meter in width can be distinguished in photos shot from 400 miles in space. The National Reconnaissance Office's billion dollar spy satellites are far better, thought to have 10 centimeter resolution. But the NRO's satellite fleet is limited and grossly overburdened, with huge gaps in its worldwide coverage that commercial imagery can be used to fill.

Orbital Sciences Corp., the satellite maker based in Sterling, Va., plans to follow Space Imagining into orbit in the middle of next year with its owns imaging satellite, OrbView 3, capable of one-meter resolution. NIMA already has Space Imagining, Orbital and a third company scheduled to enter the high-resolution imagery makret, Earthwatch Inc., under contract.

It remains to be seen whether enough of a commercial market exists to support all three companies, without major investments from the U.S. intelligence community. A spokesperson for Orbimage, the Orbital affiliate responsible for launching and managing the imaging satellite, said the firm has no doubt that a market exists, noting that Orbimage already has $500 million in backlogged orders for imagery from the new satellite.

Vernon Loeb, The Washington Post's staff writer on national security issues, writes this biweekly column exclusively for the Web. His newspaper column, Back Channels, is also carried by this Web site, and Loeb answers questions from the audience in monthly online discussions. He can reached via e-mail: loebv@washpost.com.

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© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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