Washington — It's 1995, and the Smith family settles down in front of the TV set. The network news has already begun as the set pops to life. ``... and as these satellite photos show, the Soviets have resupplied heavy arms to Angola, Cuba, and Nicaragua within the last week, despite public denials. On another front, our satellite photo analysts have determined that the chemical spill in the Texas Gulf was caused by a tanker flying a Panamanian flag....'' The situation above is fictitious. But if a group of news media interests gets its way, a satellite dedicated to news and information gathering from space may become fact by the mid-1990s. The Pentagon is opposing the move, claiming some of the pictures could pose a national-security risk.
The media have already used satellite imagery, most notably of the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident. To get even more-detailed photos, a media group wants to put up its own ``eye in the sky.'' Planet Earth would be the beat of this orbiting ``free lancer,'' covering news from hundreds of miles in space.
Detailed images from space can be purchased from two nonmilitary, remote-sensing satellites: Landsat (US) and SPOT (France). Both have been used to identify rocket sites in Libya, show changes in the Iran-Iraq war, and reveal secret military installations in the Soviet Union. SPOT imagery of the Soviet nuclear test site at Kazakhstan was used by CBS, ABC, and CNN last August to indicate that the Soviets were about to end the moratorium on underground testing.
Although occasionally useful, Landsat and SPOT lack the detail and timeliness needed for regular use. Even when details are observable, trained analysts are needed to interpret the images; at least one network misinterpreted the Chernobyl pictures and announced two, not one, ``hot'' spots. The most detailed images come from SPOT, which can pick up objects larger than 30 feet in diameter (9 meters).
The media would prefer images in the 5-meter (about 16 feet) range, which would provide enough detail to show tanks on the Iran-Iraq battlefield, missile silos deep in Soviet territory, or an oil spill along the Alaska pipeline. Images could be produced that show pirate whaling ships violating international whaling rules, volcanoes or other potential disasters, illegal ocean dumping, airplane crash sites, or foreign troop movements.
The technology for a 5-meter resolution satellite already exists. ``There are companies that are dying to sell us the technology,'' says Mark Brender, who chairs a media task force on remote sensing for the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA). For less than what ABC paid for television rights to the 1988 Olympics (about $300 million), the networks and other media groups could launch a satellite and build the necessary ground station and processing facilities.
Dr. Peter D. Zimmerman, an intelligence analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sees the media making much more use of satellite imagery as the resolution improves. ``I don't just mean breaking news ... [but] stories that take a reporter days and weeks to put together. I can envision an ... expos'e of environmental pollution by looking at the discharges from some chemical plant or ... some toxic waste dump in New Jersey,'' he says.
Mr. Brender predicts, ``The next generation of journalism students will have to be trained in photo analysis. It will certainly change the way news is gathered and presented.''
The proposal for a media satellite, now called Mediasat, has the Pentagon very concerned. Robert B. Sims, assistant secretary for public affairs at the US Department of Defense, recently commented in Sea Power magazine that ``we are just beginning to look at ... how this affects warfare,'' saying it ``would affect our ability to conduct military operations with any secrecy.''
The Pentagon hopes to have a classified executive order (Presidential Directive 37 signed by President Carter in 1978) strictly enforced. The directive holds commercial remote-sensing satellites to 10-meter resolution.
Brender and his colleagues argue that setting resolution limits on American companies simply gives the market away to foreign companies. ``If we don't build it, some other country will,'' Brender says.
The Arthur D. Little Company and the Center for Space Policy, both in Cambridge, Mass., put the industry's revenues at $2 billion to $3 billion by the year 2000. Other analysts see it even higher. Since other countries have the technology to surpass the limit, holding US companies to 10 meters no longer makes sense, Pentagon opponents contend.
Robert Brumbly, deputy general counsel in the Commerce Department, asks, ``Have the national-security concerns been balanced with our need to remain competitive in this industry?'' For him, the issue is not freedom of the press, it is the technological leadership of American industry.
The right to regulate commercial remote-sensing satellites was given to the Commerce Department through the Land Remote-Sensing Commercialization Act of 1984. This requires the secretary of commerce to consult with the Defense and State Departments before approving licenses. The Commerce Department is now in the process of finalizing the regulations to apply the act, which has sparked considerable media criticism.
NBC, the RTNDA, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and Turner Broadcasting have all registered their contention that the proposed rules are unconstitutional. They maintain that having to prove that Mediasat will never threaten national security constitutes ``prior restraint,'' a violation of their First Amendment rights. They say they need to know the standards by which the government will judge national-security and foreign-policy concerns.
It would be impossible to finance Mediasat if the federal government could shut down a multimillion-dollar operation based on some unknown criteria or political whim, according to Mediasat supporters.
The national-security concerns of the Defense Department were illustrated in a recent debate before the New York Bar Association. Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack E. Thomas, a consultant with the Defense Department, debated ABC's Mr. Brender. According to General Thomas, one of the military's primary concerns is images obtained by the media that might compromise a planned military operation.
``Suppose,'' Thomas said, ``that 300 hostages are being held somewhere. The media get a picture of an aircraft carrier ... covered with helicopters. A rescue effort is about to be launched. Publication of that picture will destroy that mission.''
Brender picked up the hostage example. ``Surely the Soviets know that carrier is there,'' he said. ``They know where it is. The Soviets aren't naive. ...'' Brender referred to three instances where the US media had advance knowledge but kept quiet when asked: the Grenada invasion, the bomb attack on Libya, and the identity of a US intelligence employee on the hijacked TWA airliner in Beirut. ``When we have to, when national security and the lives of Americans are at risk, there is tremendous press restraint,'' Brender maintained.
Thomas was not convinced. ``It isn't enough to have 99 percent compliance. We want ... these regulations [to have] some teeth,'' he said. It's too late ``to go to court after that picture has been published. The damage has been done. The casualties have been suffered.''
Roland S. Inlow, formerly a satellite expert with the CIA, agrees that Mediasat would reveal images with national-security considerations. But he says that ``trying to control this field by licensing is almost guaranteed to fail. ... In an open society, you have to work out how to handle sensitive information.''