U.S. Department of State
Other State Department Archive SitesU.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
The State Department web site below is a permanent electronic archive of information released online from January 1, 1997 to January 20, 2001. Please see www.state.gov for current material from the Department of State. Or visit http://2001-2009.state.gov for information from that period. Archive sites are not updated, so external links may no longer function. Contact us with any questions about finding information. NOTE: External links to other Internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views contained therein.
U.S. Department of State

Great Seal logo

David B. Sandalow
Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
U.S. Department of State
Symposium on "Viewing the Earth: The Role of Satellite Earth Observations and Global Monitoring in International Affairs"
George Washington University
Washington, DC, June 6, 2000

Blue Bar rule

(As Prepared for Delivery)

"Remote Sensing and Foreign Policy"

Missiles. Malaria. Deforestation. Refugee flows.

What do these topics have in common? Each is a part of our foreign policy agenda. Each is better managed because of remote sensing.

Whether it's defending the nation against military attack, promoting public health, protecting the environment or responding to humanitarian disasters, remote sensing has a role.

Meanwhile, dramatic changes in satellite technologies are on the horizon. Vendors from around the world stand poised to market a wide range of high-resolution, all-seeing and all-weather satellite imagery. A U.S. company is already selling one-meter resolution images that show individual cars on city streets and individual trees in forests.

Many of the controls that governments once had over satellite imagery are fast eroding. We are entering an era of mutual assured observation.

Today I'll explore these topics in greater detail. I'll examine the foreign policy implications of remote sensing in three parts: First, I'll talk about the impact of remote sensing on foreign policy in decades past; second, I'll consider the challenges and opportunities presented by new satellite technologies; and third, I'll suggest some modest ways of moving forward in the months ahead.

My remarks today are part of our deep and ongoing commitment to integrate science into the work of the State Department. As Secretary Madeleine K. Albright said last February: "We must forge closer bonds with the scientific communities in government, industry and academia to help inform our foreign policy."


Remote sensing plays an important role in the management of foreign policy.

This is, of course, a relatively new development in the history of diplomacy. It's less than a century since human beings learned to fly. The first satellite was launched in 1957. Capabilities of early overflights and satellites were primitive by modern standards.

Indeed, until the mid-twentieth century, information traded by diplomats was limited largely to spoken words and printed pages. Then, in 1962, the Kennedy administration released pictures of Soviet missiles in Cuba taken from high-altitude airplanes. Those images shaped the course of a historic Cold War confrontation and demonstrated that remote sensing technologies could serve as powerful diplomatic tools.

In the decade following the Cuban missile crisis, both superpowers developed sophisticated reconnaissance satellites to monitor each other's strategic forces. These remote-sensing capabilities provided an important element of stability to relations between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Satellite information became, and remains today, an important tool for verification of arms control and non-proliferation treaties.

One of the earliest earth observation satellites was an experimental weather satellite, TIROS, launched in 1960 to monitor cloud patterns. With the launch of Landsat 1 in 1972, satellite imagery became available for the first time to the general public. The Landsat satellites were tailored to produce images for broad-scale land resource monitoring. These early Landsat images, with their relatively coarse resolution, were used mainly by government and academic researchers to study subjects such as geology, geography, land use and crop development.

The success of the Landsat program stirred interest among policy makers in promoting opportunities for the private sector and, after more than a decade of fits and starts, a commercial remote sensing market began to emerge. Although the market is still in its infancy, potential buyers can now choose from an impressive array of products, such as twenty-meter multispectral images from France's SPOT satellites and one-meter panchromatic images from the IKONOS satellite launched by an American company, Space Imaging, last year.

An early indication that openly available satellite imagery could have a significant impact on global affairs came in 1986, when disaster struck at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. TV networks around the world quickly began airing Landsat and SPOT images of the stricken power plant. These images lent a clear sense of urgency to the international response that followed.

During the 1990's, we saw a flowering of remote sensing applications to address the global issues that play an increasingly prominent role in the U.S. foreign policy.

For example, remote sensing has begun to be used for international law enforcement. Satellite imagery has been used effectively at the International Criminal Tribune for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague in connection with investigations of ethnic cleansing, massacres and atrocities in the Balkans. In 1995, then -U.S. Ambassador Albright presented the U.N. Security Council with satellite images showing people in a soccer stadium in Bosnia; images taken several days later showed an empty stadium but freshly-dug mounds nearby. And imagery of remote parts of Latin America is used to delineate areas where intense cultivation of illicit coca crops is taking place.

Remote sensing is especially powerful in helping protect the global environment. For example, remote sensing technologies play a key role in forest management and assessment programs. Examples include the U.S. Forest Service's domestic Forest Inventory and Analysis program and a promising multilateral initiative known as Global Observation of Forest Cover. The President's recently announced "Greening the Globe" Initiative will fund a new program, led by NASA and AID, to use satellite imagery to compile maps of the world's tropical forests and make those maps available for conservation applications around the world. One of the best-known forest assessment activities, Brazil's program to monitor the extent and rate of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, relies heavily on satellite data.

Remote sensing has emerged as a particularly powerful tool for monitoring the global impact of forest fires, a significant natural and human-induced source of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. U.S. agencies now routinely use remote sensing to help improve the mapping of forest fires, during both day and night, in tropical forest regions including Africa and Southeast Asia.

Satellite images also provide cost-effective and robust information to enhance our management and understanding of freshwater and marine ecosystems. Our ability to understand the bleaching of coral reefs around the globe and to explore the potential connection of observed changes to climate change is a critical component of the International Coral Reef Initiative.

Remote sensing helps us better understand and respond to severe weather events, such as El Nino. Before 1997, El Nino events were only recognized once well underway. Today that has changed. The ability to predict El Nino events helps resource managers monitor and respond to drastic weather changes, reducing human and economic costs. During the 1997-98 El Nino-induced drought, for example, the U.S. Government supported Mexico and Brazil in efforts to utilize state-of-the-art geospatial technologies to map (close to real time) forest fires across vast areas of the Amazon and MesoAmerica.

Other important environmental applications of remote sensing include: delineation and mapping of river watersheds; and management of natural and industrial disasters, including floods, droughts and oil spills.

Another notable contribution is the MEDEA program, begun under the leadership of Vice President Gore. The program brings together leading scientists and technology experts to consider how national security assets might appropriately be used to study global environment issues. The Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission's Environmental Working Group used MEDEA findings to share derived products from U.S. and Russian national security reconnaissance satellites to address environmental challenges common to both countries.

This began a new chapter of openness in the post-Cold War era. The 1995 declassification of a large worldwide archive of U.S. high-resolution imagery from the 1960's and 1970's, providing a historical basis for understanding environmental change over a relatively long period, illustrates this new openness.

Finally, satellite imagery can help us address public health problems. Remotely sensed data provides information on the link between environment and human disease, an important new epidemiological tool.

NASA's Earth Science Division's Center for Health Applications of Aerospace Related Technologies (CHAART) and its Environment and Health Initiative at Goddard Space Flight Center fund research on such topics as the environmental precursors for malaria, hantavirus, Lyme disease, asthma, skin cancer, and others. These projects span the globe, from Lyme disease research in Connecticut to cholera in Bangladesh. Another NASA-funded health initiative uses Landsat, SPOT and Radarsat remote sensing data to predict malaria vector presence in Belize and relate those predictions to malaria incidence.

Every day, remote sensing plays a central role in the management of our foreign policy, from more traditional issues such as arms control to newer and emerging diplomatic issues such as protecting the global environment and promoting the public health.


So these are some of the impacts of remote sensing to date. What lies ahead?

There are significant changes on the horizon. For decades, remote sensing was almost exclusively in the hands of a few governments. High-resolution images were in the hands of the military and intelligence communities within a very few governments. Today, more than a dozen countries have their own earth observation satellites.

Equally significant, policy changes and dramatic advances in satellite technology are putting high-resolution imagery in the hands of companies, individuals and other "non-state actors." During the next decade, vendors from countries around the world will market products from a wide range of high spatial and spectral resolution satellites, including all-weather radar imagery.

At the same time, a combination of related developments, such as the downward trend in the cost of computer hardware and software and advances in the Internet, will make data easily available through online networks at home or in the office. As a result, satellite imagery will be fully integrated into the global information network, making it accessible via the Internet to villagers in India and suburbanites in Indiana.

Among the many impacts, I believe, will be an "enhanced CNN-effect," with activities that once escaped widespread public notice now capable of observation by media, activists and others. Many commentators have noted that television imagery can affect the conduct of foreign affairs. Commercially available, high-resolution imagery has the same potential.

A. Promoting the Potential Benefits of New Satellite Technologies

The challenge for the U.S. Government is clear: to promote the beneficial applications of this rapidly advancing technology while managing the risks. New high-resolution technologies can help us manage humanitarian disasters, protect the environment and promote accountability and responsibility in public affairs. At the same time, these technologies can present threats to our national security. We must shape a set of policies that help us gain the benefits of this technology while managing the risks.

The unrealized benefits of remote sensing technologies are enormous. These technologies can greatly improve our ability to respond to natural disasters and conflict-induced refugee movements. They can provide greater public scrutiny of the actions of tyrants; war crimes and acts of terrorism will become more difficult to hide. They can enhance environmental protection by enabling scientists to monitor and understand changes in small forest plots or the movement of pollutants in waterways.

In the not-so-distant future, remote sensing may help us monitor compliance with environmental agreements and treaties. For example, satellite data could help assess carbon stocks and sinks, or identify vessels engaged in illegal fishing. Such data could also foster multinational cooperation to address many threats to the global commons.

So the potential benefits are many and fairly obvious. What are the constraints to realizing these benefits, and how can we overcome them? I believe we should look in several directions.

First, we should explore tools for helping to bring imagery to users in a timely manner. In managing humanitarian disasters, for example, information is often needed quickly at remote sites. Unless satellite imagery can be channeled to those who need it in short order, it will do little good. We need to foster a marketplace in which producers and users can easily find each other, through Internet web sites or other tools.

The ultimate value of satellite data comes from integration with other technologies of the global information age. Satellite data becomes much more useful after it has been analyzed and fused with other geospatial technologies such as geographic information systems and the Global Positioning System (GPS). This allows for calibration, accuracy verification and transformation into useful information products. Particularly important is the modeling capability made possible by the fusion of data streams from various sources.

Important work toward this end is already underway. UNEP's Global Resource Information Database and the U.S. Geological Survey's EROS Data Center support a multitude of projects in which satellite data is used to generate useful information products for environmental monitoring. Another exciting initiative is "Digital Earth," a multi-agency effort to demonstrate how the integration of geospatial data and processing resources of the Federal Government can create commercial opportunities and enhance the public's understanding of physical, ecological and social dimensions of the Earth. We must intensify our work in these areas.

Second, we need to explore ways to address cost constraints. High-resolution imagery simply isn't affordable for many potential users, including NGOs and even some government agencies. The costs of developing, launching, and operating an earth observation satellite are high, and commercial operators must recoup those costs and earn a profit. We must explore vehicles for financing the acquisition of especially valuable imagery for users without adequate resources.

Third, we should explore ways to help improve interpretation of satellite imagery. Imagery interpretation can take considerable skill and training, and misinterpretation is not difficult.

Satellite images have the potential, if interpreted incorrectly, to increase tensions among nations and create confusion during periods of crisis, rather than to promote stability. For example, widespread, incorrect interpretations could confound efforts of U.S. national security agencies to mediate or diffuse tensions along the India/Pakistan, Syria/Israel borders or along the Korean peninsula. This is not just a theoretical problem: in one incident, an image that a magazine claimed was the site of India's 1998 nuclear test turned out to be a livestock pen.

Without strong experience and training, it can be relatively easy to see proof of sinister intent in a benign image, or to miss details that would be conclusive to a knowledgeable photo interpreter. Again, the concern for policy makers is how that increased transparency could at times be a source of added instability.

B. Managing the Risks of New Satellite Technologies

The availability of data from multiple foreign sources increases the risk that remotely sensed data will be used for purposes contrary to U.S. security interests. High-resolution satellite images could be used to support terrorism, espionage or military aggression, and thus must be a national security and foreign policy concern of the United States.

We must continue to protect U.S. national security and foreign policy interests. On this, there can be no compromise.

In recognition of this imperative, a presidential policy directive on remote sensing was issued to support and enhance U.S. industrial competitiveness in the field of remote sensing while protecting our national security and foreign policy interests. The President's policy facilitates a level playing field for American companies to compete successfully in the international commercial remote sensing field. The policy reflected an understanding by the United States that open access to imagery of our territory by any person or organization willing to pay for it will be a fact of life in the future, and that we must manage the risks of this new environment while embracing its advantages.

The President's policy also specifies that the government can limit collection or distribution of data by U.S. commercial satellites during specific periods when national security or foreign policy interests could be compromised (also known as "shutter control.") For example, the "shutter control" provision could have helped prevent Iraq from gaining access to commercial satellite imagery during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

I understand the concerns that many in industry and academia have expressed about our shutter control policy. We must protect U.S. national security and foreign policy interests; shutter control is a tool at our disposal for doing so. Any decisions to require shutter control will be made through an interagency process at the Cabinet-level and for the smallest area and shortest time period necessary to protect the national interest. The U.S. Government has yet to invoke shutter control; its impact over the long term remains to be seen.


More and better remotely-sensed data can have important benefits for U.S. diplomacy. Our understanding of ecological trends and public health crises will be greatly enhanced by the next generation of earth-observing satellites, as will our ability to monitor and respond to crises around the globe. We must foster the development of the commercial remote sensing industry, while at the same time protecting national security and foreign policy interests. As Secretary Albright has noted on several occasions, the United States must advance our interests and promote our values.

What can the State Department do to respond to the many challenges and opportunities presented by new remote sensing technologies?

Here are a few examples of things we will be doing in the months ahead.

-- First, I am today asking the National Academy of Sciences to bring together the best minds from government, industry, and academia to examine the emerging role of remote sensing in foreign policy development and implementation. I hope this group will consider what tools we need to get the right information to the right people at the right time. I also hope this group will consider whether steps are required to increase the supply of good imagery analysts, so that the United States can take full advantage of the vast new streams of remote sensing data that will be publicly available in the years ahead.

-- Second, my bureau is placing new emphasis on promoting space applications for sustainable development. Subject to necessary approvals, we plan to invest roughly half a million dollars to help organize regional workshops to promote space applications in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe. An important component of these workshops will be the dissemination of geospatial technologies that use remote sensing data for environmental monitoring and public health.

-- Third, we are supporting an effort by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics to organize a meeting of a small group of experts from around the world to discuss the contributions that civil space systems might make to the implementation and verification of international environmental agreements.

-- Fourth, we will continue working with NOAA on an initiative to promote more effective use of existing space technologies for managing disasters. One aspect of this could be to improve the disaster information services of the multinational Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS). Other aspects could be support for public-private partnerships on data sharing and for international activities, such as the Global Disaster Information Network (GDIN), to facilitate access to satellite data for hazard mitigation.

-- Finally, I am pleased to announce that the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science will formally join the Civil Applications Committee, an interagency committee that coordinates and oversees federal civil use of classified collections. The CAC receives and acts on requests from civil agencies for classified imagery. I'm committed to having someone from my bureau participate, to help promote environmental and scientific applications.

These are small steps. I hope they're useful. In the years ahead, the diplomatic, scientific and technical communities -- along with many others -- must work together to realize the many benefits of these new technologies.


Missiles. Malaria. Deforestation. Refugees.

Remote sensing can make a difference.

But much work remains. As we enter this era of mutually assured observation, we must proceed with common sense, promoting the benefits of new remote sensing technologies while working to manage the risks. If we do so wisely, we can reap rich rewards.

[end of document]

Blue Bar rule

|| Space and Advanced Technology |
Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs |
U.S. Department of State | Disclaimers ||