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Publication date: Sep. 8, 2004

CONGRESS MULLS FOIA EXEMPTION FOR SATELLITE DATA - EVEN UNCLASSIFIED

A bill awaiting House-Senate conference would create a new Freedom of Information Act Exemption for any information derived from "land remote sensing" instruments, such as the Landsat 7 satellite. The ban would be mandatory even for unclassified information now required to be made public under a 1992 law. If enacted, the provision could make it very hard for environmental reporters to tell their audiences whether the rain forest is shrinking, whether Miami is sprawling, or whether algae are taking over Lake Erie.

The little-noticed provision was passed by the Senate as part of the 2005 Defense Authorization (S 2400) on June 23, 2004. The House-passed version of that bill has no such language. The two versions await reconciliation in conference.

Landsat has been the focus of Byzantine interagency, spy-agency, political, and business intrigue since before the first such remote-sensing satellite to map Earth's surface was launched in 1972. It surprised even its sponsors with its value for environmental research. Science writer Stephen S. Hall, who has chronicled its history, notes that within a few weeks of its launch, the first Landsat caught a garbage barge illegally dumping industrial waste off the shores of New York.

Originally a government venture, it was privatized in the mid-1980s. But a 1992 law reconstituted the government role in operating (and maintaining data from) successive satellite platforms, and that law mandated nondiscriminatory disclosure of most Landsat information at cost.

The Senate bill would not merely exempt land remote sensing data from mandatory FOIA disclosure, but would in all cases prohibit disclosure of that data, plus any maps, studies, reports, findings, or communications in any way based on that data.

No hearings have been held on the measure, and sponsors have offered no explanation for it other than vaguely defined national security concerns. Because the bill prohibits disclosure of information the US government purchases from private companies (Hughes and Lockheed Martin) under license, protection of company profits may also be a motive.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association has led the charge against the measure. RTNDA Director Barbara Cochran opposed it in a Sept. 3, 2004 letter to the House Armed Services Committee. Other journalism, open government, and environmental groups are expected to follow suit.


Last revised January 22, 2013

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