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Gov't Agencies to Rely on Images From Private Satellite Companies

By Eric Lichtblau

The new york times

WASHINGTON

President Bush is ordering federal agencies to rely much more heavily on private satellite companies to provide images from space, a significant shift from current policy, administration officials said on Monday. The new policy seeks to limit the government’s own network of satellites to the most sensitive, high-priority assignments and use private vendors to meet relatively routine tasks “to the maximum practical extent,” officials said. The shift is seen as an effort both to bolster the position of U.S. satellite companies in the global marketplace and, in the long term, to save money. The White House is expected to announce the new policy on Tuesday after a review that began late last year. The White House’s new policy will replace a 9-year-old presidential directive signed in 1994 by President Bill Clinton, which Bush administration officials said had become largely outdated because of advances in private satellite technology. “This is a very significant change,” a senior administration official said on Monday. “We’re essentially saying that where the commercial industry can provide what we need, have at it.” But the shift carries security risks. “The potential bad news,” the senior official said, is that the images collected by private vendors “are also available to our adversaries.” The government will reserve the right to restrict the sale of commercial data by American companies to anyone deemed to pose a national security risk, the official said. The government currently has more than a half-dozen high-resolution satellites in orbit to provide imagery and photos for uses as varied as military and intelligence operations, map-making and climate control, officials said. Two private American companies operate high-resolution satellites, and a third is expected to launch one later this year, competing with other companies overseas. As the quality of private satellite resolution has improved in recent years, the government has come to rely more heavily on them, but with that trend has come bureaucratic resistance and occasional in-fighting. Last year, the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, ordered American intelligence agencies to expand their use of private satellites after Air Force officials complained that bureaucratic tangles prevented them from using commercial images of Afghanistan to aid in bombing missions in the war against the Taliban. As a result, Air Force pilots had to use outdated Russian maps during the early stages of the war.