Bob Kerrey
Keynote Address: NIMA/University of Maryland
Historical Imagery Declassification Conference

Friday, September 20, 2002

To the director of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, General Jim Clapper, and all the men and women of NIMA whose work contributes so much to the cause of defending America and advancing the circle of freedom to others: Congratulations for the effort and courage needed to arrive at this historic day.

Your work saves lives. It's that simple. Better decisions by policy makers - from the Commander in Chief to the Secretary of Defense to the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate - enable the power of the United States to be leveraged many times over. Not only do you give our war fighters complete day and night command of the battlefield but your work enables us to leverage our diplomacy thus avoiding the need for battlefields altogether.

Today's imagery and maps are so much more accurate and current than the maps that were available to yesterday's war. To see how far we have traveled I bring to your attention something I learned this summer while reading a book entitled "The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia" by Peter Hopkirk. The book contains the 19th century story of the British Empire's defense of India against the threat of a constantly expanding Imperial Russia. It is a story, by the way, that is relevant and useful for those trying to understand Central Asia today, which, I presume and hope, we are.

But this story is also about the value of imagery and maps, and their contribution to the security of both the British Empire and the Russian. Many lives were lost and many tragic mistakes made because leaders did not know about what lay between them and their destination. Ignorance fed fear and fear fed the need for action even when it was neither warranted nor wise.

Among the worst errors was the decision by the Russian Czar to move against Japan in the Far East. In one of the great surprises at the beginning of the 20th century Russia was soundly defeated. Routed would be a more accurate description of what Imperial Russia experienced instead of the easy victory they expected. The only intelligence they had was the presumption of superiority, a presumption that led to the collapse of the Romanovs and the success of the Bolsheviks.

Among the details of Mr. Hopkirk's story is the description of a top-secret group of Indian mapmakers trained by the British. They were called pundits, an Indian word used to describe superior intellectuals. Pundits were trained to make maps and memorize images of the lands between India and China. From the Himalayas to the Pamirs pundits went where few had gone before looking for land routes an army might traverse to invade or businessmen might travel for trade. To avoid detection by hostile tribes pundits learned to measure their steps precisely and to record distances and other topographical features using surreptitious means. They risked and often gave their lives to create and deliver intelligence to their civilian and military leaders. Their trips were measured in months but the news they brought was as fresh and current as any that could be obtained by alternate means.

We've come a long way from pundits to remote sensing devices and highly trained imagery analysts. Light beams and radio waves do our traveling for us and even analog images have been replaced by unimaginable quantities of digital information. Instead of months our civilian and military leaders receive real time views of people, places and things.

These changes have improved our decisions and our peacekeeping but have also stressed our lives. Now that we can learn more, we expect to know more. We are reminded of Emerson's advice about skating over thin ice: the key is speed. So we move faster and faster, hoping, as Wayne Gretzky said, to arrive at the right answer, just as the puck arrives.

To make my point, on the 20th of August of this year there appeared in the news a story about the largest joint war-fighting exercise ever held by the United States. It was called Millennium Challenge 2002, lasted three weeks and involved 13,500 military and civilian personnel battling in nine live exercise ranges and in eighteen computer simulations. It used a new airborne communication system that allowed commanders to stay in touch with far-flung fighting forces even while in transcontinental flight to the battlefield. It combined destructive power with attacks on computer networks and diplomacy. It was directed by a newly created Standing Joint Force Headquarters to coordinate the efforts of all armed forces.

The commander for the all American forces used a complete headquarters-sized communications system that was loaded onto a C-17 cargo plane. New communications and tracking systems also allowed commanders to integrate attacks by both Army and Marine Corps ground troops, rather than assign them complementary but separate missions. This level of integration marks a new beginning for U.S. forces and will likely make your jobs more challenging and rewarding. But it also puts unprecedented pressure and causes record levels of stress on those with the jobs of delivering pucks to each of those fast moving hockey players.

So I thank you - on behalf of our always grateful nation and sometimes grateful world - for your dedication, patriotism and courage to accept the awesome and awe-inspiring responsibilities of your mission.

Today's release through the National Archives of 50,000 images from the high-resolution KH-7 surveillance system that was flown from July 1963 to June 1967 and the lower-resolution KH-9 mapping system flown between March 1973 and October 1980 is an exciting moment in history. The public analysis of these images will no doubt produce an appetite for many things including better and more current images. There will be intellectual hunger to analyze the differential between how our leaders interpreted these images at the time they were taken and how the public interprets them today.

The four years from the summer of 1963 to the summer of 1967 and the seven years between winter 1973 and the fall of 1980 were exciting and challenging times. During these two periods our elected and appointed leaders made some very important foreign policy and military decisions. They used a variety of sources in order to acquire an understanding of what was going on in the world. I presume these images were part of their decision making process. Even if access was limited to the President and his national security cabinet it will be valuable for our understanding of history to learn if today's interpretation of these images is the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago.

The idea which was the foundation for the Images for Citizens program, which became the source of money to do the work of this declassification, was the product of two important and unchangeable facts. The first is that the greatest barrier to good domestic and foreign policies is the ignorance of the citizens whose opinions often dictate what our elected representatives are willing to do. Likewise the greatest asset for good policies is a solid foundation of citizens willing to make the effort to become informed. The second fact is that the technologies of information distribution continue to shift the power to inform away from a relatively small group of individuals towards anyone with a modem and computer, which is now half of all U.S. households and growing.

A diminishing fraction of U.S. citizens are waiting for their President, Secretary of Defense or State, Congressional leaders, or network anchors to tell them what is happening in the world. A growing fraction are using a proliferation of cable channels and free web sites that are communicating and stimulating new views and opinions. The world has become a growing network of people who are chatting, sharing, and communicating with each other. They, their local governments and civil society are creating magic with space images, GIS and the web. And this magic is allowing them to penetrate mysteries and reach critical understanding.

The growth of these open sources has been shaped by the work of a new generation of young, technologically savvy men and women for whom using a computer is second nature. Not only are they designing new and better ways of communicating complicated sets of data but they are designing new and revolutionary ways of learning.

With this in mind, and with the declaration that I know how much pressure you are under and how far you have traveled in a relatively short period of time, I would like to take the liberty of making two respectful recommendations to NIMA:

To be clear: I believe strongly that it is at times necessary to keep secrets from the American people in order to protect vital national security. But there are times when secrecy creates an ignorance that conspires with fear against good public decision making. Just as important, as more and more information becomes available through open sources and is being delivered via the web by the private sector, there are two potential dangers in a failure to declassify further.

The first danger is that the public is misinformed by well meaning analysts who simply make a mistake. The second is that the private sector will move to fill the gap anyway leading our senior civilian and military commanders to turn to sources other than NIMA to get their questions answered.

Both risks are real and can be minimized by establishing real firewalls around vital secrets and maintaining procedures that ensure necessary changes during times of war. No one will want vital military data to be released that could put our forces in the field or at sea at risk. None will seriously suggest that the public see images that may have been used to stage the successful predawn raid last Wednesday in Karachi, Pakistan, which brought into custody Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a prominent al Qaeda leader. But the public could benefit enormously from further declassification.

These suggestions are offered in a spirit of respect and gratitude for the patriotic commitment of the men and women at NIMA. You have made our world safer and our people more secure. You have a life saving mission and you have performed that mission well. Congratulations and thanks for all you have done and are doing to make the world more peaceful and more just.

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