Commercial Satellite Imagery Sheds Light Here and There

As the quality and availability of commercial satellite imagery continue to improve, the technology is adding a new dimension to public understanding of world events, while both enhancing and challenging national and global security.

“Last month, the most powerful commercial satellite in history sent its first pictures back to Earth, and another with similar capabilities is set for launch in mid-2009,” wrote Peter Eisler in USA Today last week.  “The imagery provided by those and other commercial satellites has transformed global security in fundamental ways, forcing even the most powerful nations to hide facilities and activities that are visible not only to rival nations, but even to their own citizens.”  See “Google Earth helps yet worries government,” November 7.

Iraqi insurgents, among other non-state actors, have also taken advantage of the new capabilities offered by satellite imagery.  A 2006 dispatch prepared by the DNI Open Source Center (first reported by USA Today) documented “the use of Google Earth for tactical planning of rocket attacks against U.S. military targets in Iraq.”  See “Iraqi Insurgency Group Utilizes Google Earth for Attack Planning,” July 19, 2006.

A newly disclosed GeoEye commercial satellite image of the site of a suspected Syrian nuclear facility at Al Kibar that was taken on November 23, 2007, some two months after it was bombed by Israel on September 6, 2007, shows rather rapid reconstruction of the destroyed facility.

“I’d say it confirms that the Syrians were in a really big hurry to get the site covered up,” said Allen Thomson, a former CIA analyst who has studied the case.  “The previously available DigitalGlobe picture of 24 October 2007 showed only a mound of dirt.  By a month later (the GeoEye pic), what appears to be a thick slab (you can see that it casts a shadow) was in place.  And January 11 imagery shows the new building up and the roof in place.”

The new image was released last week courtesy of GeoEye / Space Imaging Middle East.  It appears on page 1170 of an extensive open source compilation (large pdf) on the Israeli Strike in Syria prepared by Mr. Thomson.

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