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U.S. blurs aerial shots of Washington

In response to worries about terrorists, the U.S. government is deliberately blurring aerial photographs of high-profile Washington buildings.
This is a high-quality aerial photograph, shot from an airplane in April 2002, showing the Capitol in downtown Washington after the government began deliberately changing the images.USGS
/ Source: The Associated Press

Deferring to Secret Service worries about terrorists, the government is deliberately blurring its highest-quality aerial photographs over Washington to hide objects in plain view on the roofs of the White House, Capitol and Treasury Department.

The government also obscured aerial views of the Naval Observatory compound where Vice President Dick Cheney lives. It made no effort to blur detailed photographs showing the Pentagon, Supreme Court, CIA headquarters, Justice Department or FBI headquarters.

Experts said they feared the unusual decision reflects a troublesome move toward new government limits on commercial satellite and aerial photography, a booming industry driven by recent technology advances that includes some major companies based outside the United States.

Some commercial satellites already can snap photographs almost as detailed as the images shot from airplanes that were ordered blurred by the government.

Experts also questioned the effectiveness of blurring one set of government-financed photographs. Tourists can see the roofs of the White House and U.S. Capitol from dozens of tall buildings downtown, and the Web site for the National Park Service shows a June 2002 photograph of the White House from atop the Washington Monument.

"We have to accept that we're not going to be invisible from space anymore," said James Lewis, a satellite expert for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The knee-jerk reaction is to turn it off. Once in a while that makes sense, but not very often."

Unaware of degradation
Some private companies that already purchased this most recent collection of detailed photographs did not know some had been degraded by the government until contacted by The Associated Press.

"This is the first time we've seen anything like this," said Chris Becwar of GlobeXplorer LLC of Walnut Creek, Calif., which makes satellite and aerial photographs available over popular Web sites. "We'd prefer that it not be there."

Becwar said the company will consider replacing the degraded government photographs with other commercially available images of downtown Washington that haven't been altered.

The Secret Service ordered the photographs degraded as a condition of permitting a contractor's twin-engine Piper Navajo Chieftain to fly directly over Washington in April 2002, where such flights have been heavily restricted since the 2001 terror attacks.

Secret Service spokesman John Gill said the agency worried that the high-altitude photographs, so detailed that pedestrians can be seen in crosswalks, "may expose security operations."

Mary Hiatt, a vice president for EarthData International of Maryland LLC, said the Secret Service "gave us guidance as to what they had concerns about," and the company used commercial software to blur parts of some photographs and obscure parts of others.

The affected images include:

  • The White House, where the roof is obscured to hide objects in plain view.
  • The nearby Old Executive Office Building where many presidential aides work. The roof on that photo is obscured and interior courtyards blurred.
  • The Treasury Department, next door to the White House, where the roof also is obscured and interior courtyards blurred.
  • The Capitol, where the main building and five nearby congressional office buildings are blurred.
  • The Naval Observatory compound that houses the vice presidential residence. The aerial view is blurred.

The U.S. Geological Survey, which paid for the photographs, has been distributing them publicly since last December without formally acknowledging they were altered. The Washington photographs were part of a national project to create high-resolution images of 133 cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Miami, St. Louis, Las Vegas and Dallas.

About half the cities already have been photographed, and none of the images was deliberately degraded for security reasons, said Scott Harris, a spokesman for the Geological Survey.