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Washington vetoes satellite photo sales of Israel

Obtaining satellite photographs of Israel nowadays is just a matter of placing a credit card order with one of the international consortia marketing images from outer space. A paying customer can obtain photos with a resolution of between 80 cm and one meter, good enough to spot a tank or an infantry squad guarding a Golan Heights hilltop. The real problem is real-time.

Military and civilian satellites now orbit at altitudes of 500 km and 1,500 km. That means a satellite passes once every 24 hours over a given site, such as Israel’s nuclear reactor at the southern town of Dimona or Iran’s atomic reactor at Bushehr. Customers must wait about 48 hours, and pay more, for ground supervisors to reposition the satellite’s cameras for a different view of the object. Somewhat remarkably, Israel’s Ofek-4 spy satellite is the only eye in the sky that can change a camera angle while over a given target.

According to DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources, US and Israeli intelligence discovered in a joint investigation that Arab armed forces recently began buying up reams of satellite photos of Israel. Asked on order forms to explain the uses of their purchases, operations officers of the different Arab armies replied the imagery was needed to locate ceasefire lines with Israel more precisely than had been possible with UN maps, the better to avoid misunderstandings that might spark border incidents. Another purpose offered was the wish to avoid stray incursions into Israeli territory during naval and air maneuvers.

But shared intelligence revealed the photo requests were not quite so innocent. Arab military customers ordering satellite images of Israel did not ask for views of border regions but rather “blocks of territory.” In a transparent effort to compensate for their own lack of satellite technology, they requested imagery spanning the length and breadth of Israel plus Palestinian-controlled areas. According to our intelligence sources, these customers were fobbed off with the tale that such photomaps take a year to prepare when in fact they can be whipped up much faster. The firms had two motives for manufacturing this delay – to minimize the photographs’ intelligence value and to milk the customers for more money.

It’s a lucrative business: In the first half of 2003 alone, Arab armies placed orders for satellite imagery orders worth $220 million, compared with $375 million in all of 2002. That was the point at which the US government entered the picture, DEBKAfile’s sources report from Washington, with a decision to restrict Arab and Muslim access to satellite photos of strategic value.

A new 500-page booklet of instructions limiting the sale of pictorial matter filmed from space came down from Washington to American and other Western satellite imagery companies. It places limits on photo resolution in sensitive regions in the world and lists some regions as no-photo zones – unless customers obtain special permission after applying in advance through the proper US channels.

One chapter, according to DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources, restricts sales of satellite photography over Israel and its military installations. The quantity of ink devoted to Israel emphasizes Washington’s mounting concern to keep this useful tool from being readily available to any Muslim or Arab terrorist or government wishing to strike at the Jewish state. The new rules mean that satellite photos of Israeli territory may be sold – but their resolution must be cleared after the careful consideration of each individual order.

In other words, the satellite consortia, or the intelligence services to which they are linked – in this case American – will have full control of which pictures go on sale and when – a radical departure from the free and easy mode of today whereby anyone with a credit card can buy black and white or color satellite photos with a resolution of one meter or even less within 72 hours.