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News Media Fears Restrictions on Private Picture-Taking Satellites

March 9, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Commerce Department is putting the final touches on regulations that broadcasters and newspaper publishers fear will enable the government to restrict the use of private satellites that photograph the Earth.

The news media are increasing the use of such pictures, including historic shots of the burned Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Soviet Union, and some media groups have talked about possibly putting up their own satellite.

But they fear the satellite-licensing regulations being drafted by Commerce will give officials at the State and Defense departments overly broad discretion to restrict use of such satellites.

″Who would want to spend all that money to finance a private, remote- sensing system and leave it to the mercy of the Department of Defense and Department of State as to when you could use it?″ asked Robert Aamoth, a Washington lawyer representing the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

″The uncertainty as to when restrictions would be imposed would stifle any attempt by the press to put up its own satellite,″ he said. ″Those media satellites would be left on the drawing board.″

The Defense and State departments told the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is drafting the rules, that they need latitude in protecting national security interests.

″This sensitive technology can be used to detect troop presence, troop movements, location of missile sites and the like. Even weather information may be deemed to have national security implications,″ the State Department said in its comments.

Currently, the news media have two sources for the pictures - the U.S.-owned Landsat satellites and Spot Image, a French company - both of which sell images of the Earth’s surface to government and private geologists, foresters, crop forecasters and others involved in resource management.

The Spot satellite can photograph in 10-meter resolution, meaning it can distinguish objects about 33 feet by 33 feet, or the size of half a tennis court. Military intelligence satellites reportedly can read the license plate of a car.

A directive issued by President Carter in the late 1970s limits private observation satellites to 10-meter resolution, Anthony J. Calio, then deputy administrator of NOAA, told a House science and technology subcommittee in June 1985.

The Commerce rules were drafted a year ago and since then have been revised to accommodate some of the media’s First Amendment concerns, but Aamoth says the proposed rules still fail to outline a specific standard to govern when national security concerns could restrict satellite use.

″Saying you are bound by the First Amendment isn’t enough,″ Aamoth says.

The Pentagon, in comments filed on the proposed regulations, said it must have ″flexibility″ and ″maximum discretion″ in addressing national security concerns, noted Mark Brender, an ABC News assignment editor who heads a Radio-Television News Directors Association task force on remote sensing. ″Those are buzz words for censorship.″

National Broadcasting Co. Inc. acknowledged in its comments on the revised regulations that ″remote-sensing capability could under certain circumstances give rise to legitimate national security concerns.″ However, the press and others ″are entitled under the First Amendment to know what level of national security concerns will trigger governmental restrictions on speech,″ NBC said.

Robert Burke, a vice president of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, said satellite-licensing rules ″should not be any more restrictive of access than existing rules for photography on Earth.″ Maximum access to such images is ″a wise policy that promotes free flow of information necessary to a free society,″ he added.

The House space science and applications subcommittee plans to hold hearings this year on the First Amendment issue involved in satellite photography.

Commerce Department officials said modifications were being made to the proposed rules. They declined to discuss what changes were being made, though they indicated they were minor.

The proposed rule is expected to be published in its final form by the end of March.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has asked a White House advisory panel on intelligence to ″review the security aspects of the civil remote sensing program,″ Craig Alderman Jr., deputy under secretary of Defense for policy, said in the department’s comments on the draft regulations.

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