from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2004, Issue No. 79
September 7, 2004


A proposed Freedom of Information Act exemption for commercial satellite imagery would severely restrict public access to a broad swath of unclassified government information.

The proposed exemption, already approved in the Senate, awaits consideration this month in a House-Senate conference committee.

The text of the measure, entitled "Nondisclosure of Certain Products of Commercial Satellite Operations," is here:

Almost every clause of the proposed exemption embodies patent hostility to the conventions of open government and public access to government information.

Thus, the exemption would apply not only to commercial satellite images acquired by the government, but would also broadly exclude "any... other product that is derived from such data."

This means that maps, reports, and any other unclassified government analyses or communications that are in some way "derived from" a commercial satellite image would become inaccessible through FOIA.

Not only that, but "any State or local law relating to the disclosure of information or records" would be preempted and nullified when it comes to imagery or imagery-derived information.

And more: the provision would not merely "exempt" all of this information, but would positively "prohibit" its disclosure. Government officials would be barred from releasing it under FOIA even if they wanted to.

"The use of remote sensing imagery has become a routine and important part of newsgathering, facilitating more compelling news coverage," wrote Barbara Cochran of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), an advocate for news media use of commercial satellite imagery, in a letter to Congress last week.

"The usefulness of such imagery in covering wars, refugees, disasters, genocides, illicit weapons, etc. is readily apparent."

But the proposed FOIA exemption would threaten this function, she argued.

"In essence, this new FOIA exemption would result in taxpayer dollars being used to preclude the media from adequately informing the public about matters of critical importance that in no way implicate the national security."

"For example, imagery of genocide or disaster sites, which the government may have obtained, may be denied to journalists investigating how the government responded to these calamities."

"Congress should not undermine the public's interest in knowing what its government is up to in its quest to protect the nation," she urged.

See her September 3, 2004 letter to the House Armed Services Committee:


A Defense Department initiative known as Domestic Nuclear Event Assessment (DNEA) is pursuing the operational and analytical capacity to rapidly identify the origin of a nuclear explosion that occurs within the United States.

"Attribution is essential for the United States to appropriately respond to a domestic nuclear event (DNE)," according to a newly released portion of a Defense Science Board (DSB) study.

The DSB noted that "The requirement for attribution capability as a part of deterrence was reaffirmed in a recent National Security Presidential Directive," referring to NSPD 17.

"The bottom line is that DNEA is the most comprehensive, coordinated, and organized approach ever undertaken by the U.S. Government to identify the perpetrators of an event using a nuclear or radiological dispersal device," the DSB report stated. "It is on schedule for mid-FY06 IOC [initial operational capability]."

The previously unreported DNEA effort was described in Volume II-A of the Defense Science Board 2003 Summer Study on DoD Roles and Missions in Homeland Security, dated May 2004, which was made public last week.

See the description of DNEA on pages 48-50 of the DSB report here (157 pages, 1.5 MB PDF file):


"Our country has forgotten how to keep a secret," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at an August 26 press briefing.

"We have such a hemorrhaging of information that's classified. Every day in Washington, D.C., and around the world," he said.

Secretary Rumsfeld went on to acknowledge the fact of overclassification, but drew no inferences as to its relationship to the leak problem:

"Now it may very well be that a lot of information is classified that shouldn't be, or it's classified for a period longer than it should be. And maybe we've got to find a better way to manage that as well." See:

He made similar points in response to a question on secrecy from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at an August 17 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee:


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

To SUBSCRIBE to Secrecy News, send an email message to with "subscribe" (without quotes) in the body of the message.

To UNSUBSCRIBE, send a blank email message to

OR email your request to

Secrecy News is archived at:

Secrecy News has an RSS feed at: