What Can Satellites Do for Domestic Spying?
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The use of spy satellites by Homeland Security raises many questions, and in the coming days, we'll address the privacy issues at stake.
But today, we're going to start with the technology and what spy satellites can see that, say, Goggle Earth cannot. John Pike runs GlobalSecurity.org, and he's joining us in the studio. Welcome back...
Mr. JOHN PIKE (Director, GlobalSecurity.org): Good to be here.
SIEGEL: ...to the program. We've just heard in Pam Fessler's report someone describing the limitations of what you can do with a spy satellite. For a public that watches "24" or a movie like "Enemy of the State," how close are we to real-time images that can track bad guys running through back alleys?
Mr. PIKE: Well, everything that you've learned about spy satellites from the movies is wrong. Real spy satellites are the exact opposite of movie satellites. In the movies, you're getting full motion imagery off the satellites; real spy satellites - it's a still image. In the movies, it's in color; real spy satellites are in glorious black and white. In the movies, the spy satellites are hovering and real spy satellites flying overhead. They'll be in the sky above for five, six minutes and then they'll come back.
SIEGEL: They're not geosynchronous over one spot or any...
Mr. PIKE: No, they're not. No. That's right. They're just up a few hundred miles. In the movies, it's very easy to figure out what the satellite's going to acquire an image of. In the real world, some serious heavy lifting is required to do it. So everything that - these are basic - movie spy satellites are basically plot devices to keep the plot moving rapidly. They bear almost no resemblance to the real thing.
SIEGEL: Yeah, we heard Mr. Allen of the Department of Homeland Security talking about the potential use of spy satellites to check port vulnerability, say. Does that make sense to you? Do you - might be able to see what's inside the...
Mr. PIKE: Well, that part of it I'm having a little difficulty following. Some other things, though, that we've heard about, I think do make some sense. If we think, for instance, about coming up on the anniversary of Katrina, one thing that spy satellites can do is that they can see through clouds. And so, if I'm trying to figure out what the damage was after a hurricane has gone through, that spy satellite would be able to tell me within a few hours in a way that we probably would not be able to do from the ground or using an airplane, for instance.
SIEGEL: Would imagery from a spy satellite over the Mexican border be able to tell you where and when people are typically coming across the border?
Mr. PIKE: Maybe it would. I think you'd be doing a better job just by putting TV cameras on posts every mile or so, if you were trying to figure out what the available evacuation route was after a disaster. If I want an image of potential target city that is only a couple of weeks old rather than a year old, spy satellites might be a good candidate. Border security would not be at the top of my list.
SIEGEL: Well, you're describing all the limitations of spy satellites. There must be something that's so good about the imagery it's producing that DHS would want to look at it more often.
Mr. PIKE: Well, one of the good - I think that one of the things that it would be useful for is to get an image of potential target cities with considerable frequency and with considerable regularity, because if there's been some sort of mass casualty event, and I'm trying to figure out where I'm going to be sending the rescue people, what I'm going to be doing about evacuating and so forth, I don't want to know what the city looked like two years ago. There's a lot of construction activity. I want to know what the city looked like last week, and the spy satellites are the ticket for that.
SIEGEL: When we see what's done with this - a close-circuit television imagery in Britain after crimes have been committed, it seems that all those images are very useful to go back and see what happened, that is, retrospectively. Would that also be a use of satellite imagery as opposed to real-time predictive uses?
Mr. PIKE: Probably not because these cameras and the spy satellites are point and click. You have to consciously decide, I'm going to acquire an image of this particular area, maybe happenstancially, you're going to find some information that would be relevant, but I wouldn't count on it.
Mr. PIKE: Yes.
SIEGEL: Thank you very much for talking with us. John Pike, a director and founder of GlobalSecurity.org.
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