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Bush orders agencies to use commercial spy satellite data

President Bush has ordered federal agencies to make greater use of private sector high-resolution imaging satellites that take detailed pictures of objects on the ground from hundreds of miles above earth. The move will greatly commercialize the government's use of spy satellites, according to administration and industry sources.

The White House on Tuesday announced a new national policy instructing agencies to utilize "to the maximum practical extent" commercial satellites. The images those satellites produce, which are fine enough to depict an object just over 1 meter wide, are used primarily by intelligence agencies and the Defense Department. Since the images are unclassified, they can be shared without security clearance among U.S. allies for intelligence analysis and battlefield planning, as they were in recent military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Intelligence agencies already rely heavily on the only two U.S. firms that produce high-resolution images: Space Imaging of Denver, Colo., and DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo. The presidential directive instructs the agencies to use the firms even more so that they can focus more sophisticated government-owned and operated satellites on higher-priority tasks.

"There is this tremendous hunger for high-resolution imagery, and industry is now in a position to provide that," said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

Now that outsourcing of intelligence collection has become policy, agencies will be expected to use their own satellites primarily for cases where more precise identification of a target is necessary. In most cases, the company-produced images meet agencies' needs, Aftergood said. Government-owned satellites are believed to be able to spot objects ten times smaller than what can be seen by satellites in orbit now, he added.

The high-resolution imaging industry was born in 1994, when President Clinton issued a national policy granting companies licenses to build and launch the satellites. The new directive presumably will go a long way toward buttressing the two U.S. companies. It's also designed to ensure the government doesn't rely on foreign firms. France, Russia, India and Israel are among the major foreign providers of high-resolution imagery, according to Mark Brender, an executive with Space Imaging.

A spokesman for the National Security Council said, "The policy [contains] an important national security component to ensure that key technological capabilities and services are protected under national security interests."

An industry analyst said that the high-resolution industry hasn't grown as much as some had hoped nearly a decade ago, despite the high demand from government. The companies hope that the new policy will create more business, said David Beachley of BRW LeGrand, a marketing firm in Denver that works for Space Imaging.

Given the large appetite agencies already have for satellite imagery, Aftergood questioned whether a presidential directive was necessary to buoy the industry, especially since a third firm now is preparing to enter the market. Growing applications for imagery include border and port security, forest fire control, geological mapping and urban planning. In that sense, "The directive ratifies a process that is already underway of acquiring commercial imagery," Aftergood said.