If there is a war with Iraq, at least a dozen nations will watch it unfold from space, including some countries that oppose U.S. policies in the Middle East.
That means a hostile government could share satellite intelligence about U.S. war strategy with Saddam Hussein.
Or Iraq itself, which has no satellites but does possess sophisticated intercept equipment, might just steal the data.
"It has happened before," said Bill Kennedy, a veteran satellite imaging specialist in Washington, D.C. "A Japanese university was caught hijacking data from (an American) Landsat satellite as it flew over Japan. You have to have a high level of technology and sophistication, but it can be done. It has been done."
A profusion of both spy and commercial satellites in the last several years virtually guarantees that nothing done in the open can remain a secret for long. Some satellites boast technology that allows them to clearly see objects as small as 2 feet.
If Hussein wanted, for example, to use chemical or biological weapons against opposing forces, a government with a bird's eye view of Iraq and the region could tell him which forces were operating where. Hussein himself might possess the means to pirate the intelligence.
"Before the first Gulf War, Iraq's nuclear weapons establishment built up an incredibly sophisticated network for procuring banned items," said Peter Zimmerman, a physicist and long-time defense and foreign policy analyst in Washington. "They could have rebuilt that network _ somehow they bought banned aluminum tubes last year _ and salted it with some innocent sounding organizations that already traffic in imagery for the Middle East.
"Besides, Saddam may be able to crack the simple encryption used to protect downlinked commercial imagery data. Possibly he could even take control of a satellite's functions."
Satellite intelligence could show Hussein that U.S. forces are ready to launch and let him counter with chemical or biological agents.
"Just because he could doesn't mean he will," Zimmerman said. "But satellite photos would be a useful aid in making such a decision one way or another."
The highly secretive National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which operates many of the United States' best intelligence-gathering satellites, acknowledged that foreign satellite intelligence could aid Iraq in a war.
"All sources of information about U.S. troops present risks that must be appropriately assessed by those who review the operations security procedures," said NIMA spokeswoman Joan Mears. "Commercial imagery is only one factor. The U.S. military takes actions that mitigate the risk these satellites may pose."
Mears deferred to the military on all questions about those possible actions, and the military isn't talking.
It is difficult to gauge the scope of the threat, but Kennedy said the proliferation of both government and commercial satellites leaves the door open.
"The list of countries with satellites up there is long and growing longer every week: China, Brazil, Israel, India, Japan, Russia, France and others, and some of those satellites are pretty doggone good ones," Kennedy said. "With the fractioning of the U.N. Security Council, the Chinese, the Indians, the French, who knows who might be willing to share information, even with Saddam Hussein?"
Tim Brown, senior analyst with the nonprofit group GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va., thinks the opportunities for mischief are limited.
"You have to ask yourself the question, if Saddam Hussein had the best imagery available, what would that accomplish?" Brown said. "If they want to know what's going on at a U.S. air base, do they need satellite imagery to accomplish that, or is it information they can get from the ground? I think the danger of the imagery is overblown."
The Russians, for example, who oppose a war with Iraq, are "much more responsible than you might think about who they make their satellite images available to," Brown said.
"But having said that," he added, "we know that selling arms in Russia is an entrepreneurial exercise. Are there people who are tired of living in their crappy Moscow apartments who might be willing to sell images to the Iraqis? Probably. The trouble is, that might not help the Iraqis when the war starts if their sources get cut off."
He also discounts leaks from the French, despite their adamant opposition to a war with Iraq.
"Their animosity doesn't run to that level," Brown said. "The French see the U.S. as a superpower that needs to be balanced out. They don't want to be seen as partners to terrorists."
Satellite imaging most commonly is acquired above board at a hefty price, with interests as diverse as oil companies, agribusiness, geologists, forestry services and even the news media buying directly from the source. This was true even during the first Gulf War, when satellite imaging was far less common.
In September 1990, the first Bush administration said that 265,000 Iraqi troops and at least 1,500 tanks were in Kuwait, many positioned along the border with Saudi Arabia, poised for an invasion. Based on those reports, the Saudis asked a coalition of forces, including the United States, to provide protection.
The St. Petersburg Times purchased Soviet commercial satellite photos of the border and had them examined in detail by two imaging specialists, including Zimmerman. They found no evidence of significant military buildups along the Saudi border.
After the war, Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now secretary of state, acknowledged that there could have been far fewer Iraqi troops in Kuwait than originally believed.
Since then, the use of satellite information has grown exponentially, even by the U.S. government.
During Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the Pentagon contracted with Space Imaging, a Littleton, Co., concern, for all images of Afghanistan and Pakistan that the company's satellite could produce between Oct. 5, 2001, and Jan. 5, 2002.
The goal was not censorship but mapping, according to Mark Brender, director of government relations.
"There was a lot of uncertainty after Sept. 11, and the Pentagon wanted to keep its own satellites free to do intelligence work," Brender said. "The most recent maps of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region were from the mid 80s, Russian maps used during their war in Afghanistan. They were useless, so the Defense Department used images from Ikonos to give U.S. troops up-to-date mapping and terrain data."
Under a law passed in 1992, the federal government can close off all data developed by American commercial satellites if the secretaries of state and defense decide that's necessary. They can limit access to the data only to protect international obligations, foreign policy and national security concerns.
The limitations are imposed by the secretary of commerce, whose department licenses the satellites.
So far, Brender said, there are no indications that this will happen in the event of war with Iraq.
"I think the administration finds it better to have the images in the public domain," he said. "They show our strength and resolve to the Iraqis and others who might need to see them."
Even if images from U.S. satellites were closed off, "it would be expensive and difficult," Zimmerman says. "There are too many eyes in the sky. We can't control them all."
_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.