138. Memorandum NSCU/DM–140 From the National Security Council Under Secretaries Committee to President Ford 1 2


  • Policy on Remote Earth Imagery

The Standing Committee on Space Policy of the Under Secretaries Committee, which was established by your direction in 1975, has undertaken as its first task a review of policy on remote earth imagery.

I am transmitting herewith a report on remote earth imagery policy, prepared by the Standing Committee. This report represents the first interagency review of USG policy governing remote earth imagery since 1966. The Standing Committee has identified one issue—the classification of the fact of satellite photo reconnaissance—as central to updating our policy, and provides in the report a detailed analysis and options for your consideration. Certain other issues on which there is a consensus are presented in the form of recommendations.

US Remote Earth Imagery Programs

The US currently operates two wholly separate satellite programs which acquire images of the earth. On the one hand, intelligence programs are classified and compartmented, and are used principally (although not solely) to acquire foreign military information that is essential to US defense planning and arms control verification. Intelligence programs stress high spatial resolution. On the other hand, civil imagery programs have been open, unclassified and used to acquire global information on a routine, repetitive basis. Civil programs have tended to utilize a [Page 2] variety of sensors, rely heavily on digital processing techniques for data extraction, and stress precise spectral resolution (which permits fine discrimination between wave lengths of recorded energy) rather than high spatial resolution.

To date most of the federal civil users who have access to high resolution imagery have found it useful. High resolution imagery (for the purpose of this study defined as resolution better than 20 meters) is produced only by the intelligence program at present, and is not contemplated in US open civil programs until the Space Shuttle is flying in the 1980’s.


The Standing Committee has postulated the following objectives for US remote earth imaging programs:

  • —to continue to protect the US intelligence program from direct challenge, external regulation, or interference;
  • —to avoid compromising technology which reveals the precise characteristics of US equipment used in the intelligence program or which reveals US intelligence capabilities and methods;
  • —to avoid providing outside of protected channels imagery which compromises classified information on US military operations or defense installations;
  • —to promote complete freedom in the acquisition of imagery in both civil and intelligence programs, and in the distribution of unclassified imagery and data in any eventual international legal regime for remote earth imagery;
  • —to maintain the civil character and control of the US civil program for remote earth imagery while taking pertinent security considerations into account, including provisions for dedication of such programs to national security purposes when directed by the President in time of national emergency;
  • —to continue to use cooperation with other countries in remote earth imagery and other space applications as an important element in our foreign relations, with particular emphasis on sharing the products of such technology to assist developing countries;
  • —to provide federal civil users the best imagery available at the lowest classification possible within national security constraints in order that the requirements of federal civil users can be met to the extent feasible and that the maximum utility may be extracted from satellite photography produced by the intelligence program;
  • —to make publicly available the most useful unclassified imagery and unclassified data derived from classified imagery both of the US and of the world for scientific research, economic development, commercial applications, and other appropriate purposes.


The present US policy is to refuse to confirm in any unclassified official statement the fact that the US conducts photo-reconnaissance from satellites, and the “fact of” the intelligence program is classified SECRET. In effect this policy also precludes the release outside classified channels of any imagery or derived information with attribution to a classified imagery satellite source. Thus the use of intelligence imagery for civil purposes is severely constrained. On the one hand, it is argued that the uncertain risks to the intelligence program associated with official acknowledgement at this time outweigh the potential benefits of opening the way for greater civil use of intelligence data. On the other hand, it is argued that the intelligence program is such an open secret that there is little risk in making intelligence imagery which reveals no classified information available for broader civil use.

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Members of the Under Secretaries Committee who favor maintaining classification of “fact of” include State, DOD, NASA, JCS, CIA, and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). ACDA shares this view. Members who favor declassifying “fact of” without revealing classified information on the program itself include Commerce and OMB. Interior and AID share this view.

OMB, in commenting on the attached report, has expressed the opinion that the report gives insufficient emphasis to the programmatic and budgetary implications of a decision not to seek declassification of “fact of.” Other agencies believe that they have given appropriate consideration to programmatic and budgetary alternatives in arriving at their positions.


The Under Secretaries Committee reached consensus on the following recommendations and recommends that you approve them:

That there be limited expansion of federal use of high-resolution imagery acquired by the intelligence programs.
That civil programs be permitted to utilize acquisition resolution of no better than 10 meters on an open worldwide basis with better resolution being considered on a case-by-case basis.
That the USG continue its efforts to ensure that any international legal regime governing remote sensing activities does not restrict our freedom to acquire and disseminate remote earth imagery.
That the President reaffirm, as classified internal USG policy, that programs devoted to military or intelligence purposes will not be constrained by any international regime governing civil remote sensing activities.
That NRO and NASA should continue their efforts to utilize common techniques and services when appropriate and otherwise continue to coordinate their programs through the recently established Program Review Board. Periodically the Program Review Board should report to the Standing Committee on the results of these coordination actions.
That the objectives postulated for US remote earth imaging programs be endorsed, and, together with the above options and recommendations that are approved, be incorporated into new policy guidelines governing the civil and intelligence remote sensing programs and the relationship between the two.

Charles W. Robinson
  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files, Box 66, NSDM 333 (6). Top Secret. Forwarded by Poats, Acting Staff Director, to the Department of Defense, the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, the Director of Central Intelligence, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the Undersecretary of Commerce, the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the National Reconnaissance Officer. Copies were sent to the Undersecretary of the Interior, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Only the summary to the 17-page report is published.
  2. The memorandum transmitted the report and recommendations of the Standing Committee on Space Policy concerning remote earth imagery policy.