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Satellite Images Help Public Understand Iraqi Debate - 2002-12-19

While discussions of the possibility of a U.S. war with Iraq continue within the American military, people outside the military are debating that issue as well. For those without access to military intelligence, it can be difficult to know all the reasons the U.S. government might be considering preemptive strikes against Iraq. That's where a private group called comes in. This Internet-based organization is using state-of-the-art satellite imagery to improve the public's understanding of the debate over Iraq and other trouble spots.

GlobalSecurity, a not-for-profit organization and website, provides the world a bird's-eye view of selected areas of interest to the U.S. government. Like the military, GlobalSecurity uses satellite imagery to focus on those locations. Unlike the military, GlobalSecurity will also let you take a look at their satellite images simply by visiting their website,

Although many of the images on display show sites where Iraq is suspected to be producing or stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, director John Pike maintains that GlobalSecurity does not take sides in the debate over U.S. policy toward Iraq. "The purpose of the organization is basically to enable the public to understand the polices of the United States government, to understand the choices faced by the United States government, and, to the extent possible, make sure that the government knows that the public has some understanding of what's going on, and that the government has to explain to the public the basis of its policies."

GlobalSecurity's director says the commercial satellite images it purchases and displays on its web site can be very instructive. He notes that by gathering a series of different photos of the same area over a stretch of time, a short history of that area can be established. "Everybody always says that a picture is worth a thousand words. We find that two pictures are worth ten thousand words," he says. "It's really when you get a sequence of images of a given facility that you start to tell a story about it and see how that facility has developed."

Some of GlobalSecurity's pictures were so effective at telling a story that they prompted a direct response from the Iraqi government. One of the sites that the United States believes Iraq could be using to produce weapons of mass destruction is the Tuwaitha nuclear facility near Baghdad. However, the U.S. government did not publicly release any of its intelligence information about Tuwaitha or any other suspected sites. But GlobalSecurity offered the news media a series of satellite images of the Tuwaitha facility. Mr. Pike says the images showed new construction at the nuclear facility and soon made headlines around the world. "Then a couple of days later, the Iraqi government, showing off our satellite image, took a bunch of journalists out to that facility and showed them at least part of it. It showed that some of the facility was still a junk heap, but there was a lot of the facility that the news media was not allowed to visit," said Mr. Pike. "Now, if we had not released that image, the public would have had no idea what the debate was about, the Iraqi government probably wouldn't have taken the journalists out there, and so I think that people wouldn't understand nearly as well just exactly what this whole argument is all about."

While the story demonstrates the power GlobalSecurity has to inform the public and influence the debate about a possible war, it also underscores the group's limits. Satellite imagery is just that: pictures from space looking down at the tops of buildings. You can observe, over time, different concentrations of activity and new construction, but you can't see exactly what's going inside a suspect building. Tim Browne, Senior Analyst at GlobalSecurity, has the job of examining the satellite photos that the organization receives. He concedes that there are limits to how much information satellite photography can provide, even to the U.S. government, which has access to higher quality images. "At the end of the day, they aren't able to deliver a definitive smoking gun even coming from their reporting. It's still sort of, 'how do you read the tea leaves?'" he says. "If you're in favor of a war with Iraq, you're going to read them one way. If you want to let sanctions continue or you want to try to avoid a conflict than you can read them another way. It's just really ambiguous."

To illustrate just how subjective his job can be, Mr. Browne points to two different satellite images of an Iraqi missile factory. The U.S. government provided the first image after the 1998 airstrikes on Iraq. The second image is a more recent picture of the same area. "Well, this is what it looked like after the strikes. These two buildings were badly damaged. And then here's what it looks like this year. So this one building has been completely repaired," he said. "The smaller one has been converted into three smaller buildings. On the one hand it shows you that the Iraqis are reconstituting some of their capability. But the question still remains, what's actually in that building? Is it just a baby milk factory, or are they back to making missile components?"

GlobalSecurity doesn't focus exclusively on Iraq or other countries the United States is in conflict with. It sometimes provides images of United States military activity as well. The organization stirred controversy when it published photographs chronicling the construction of a U.S. air base in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, a strategically important U.S. ally. Company analyst Tim Browne says that GlobalSecurity doesn't intend to put U.S. forces at risk. He insists that Iraq and neighboring countries already knew of the base. Mr. Browne says the photographic evidence that new construction was underway at the base after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington was an important illustration to the American public of its government's resolve to fight terrorism. "It's one of those images that's an icon, that represents symbolically the U.S. military commitment to the region. It shows our resolve and the fact that we have a facility there. And also it highlights some of the political tensions [between] the United States and other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, that we haven't been able to rely on exclusively for operations [against] Iraq."

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters recently that he wished the government didn't have to live with freely available satellite images of U.S. forces. But experts suggest that given the number of commercial satellites in the sky today, Mr. Rumsfeld won't likely get his wish. Christopher Simpson is an Associate Professor of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C.. He believes that when publishes information that neither Iraq nor the United States government want the public to see, it is probably doing the right thing. "I do think that GlobalSecurity is at considerable risk to themselves, it's because not everybody likes this, trying to tell the truth as best they know it about what's going on in Iraq and the United States and so on," he says. "It's not quite the same thing as being balanced -- 'on the one hand this, on another hand that.' It is, rather, putting on the most accurate story, the most documented story that they're able to do at any particular time. I think that the effort is admirable."

That effort is also costly. As a non-governmental organization, GlobalSecurity has to raise money through grants and individual donors to continue to purchase expensive satellite images, pay its employees, and run its website. Director John Pike says he is hoping that large media companies like CNN will help to fund Global Security's operations so that it can continue to provide the public with a unique and important "eye in the sky."