T he White House’s decision to send a senior foreign policy official out Dec. 13 to publicly discuss the new U.S. National Space Policy is welcome and overdue. The policy, the first comprehensive update of U.S. space guidance in a decade, has been a source of controversy and even hyperbole since it was quietly released Oct. 6.

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has stood silent amid charges that the policy paves the way for deploying space weapons. If the White House’s intent is to address that issue head on, it has designated an appropriate spokesman: Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Should Mr. Joseph engage in a candid discussion of space control and its more controversial cousin, space weapons, it might not douse the fire. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing: as recent events illustrate, what is needed is a more-open and better-informed debate on this issue.

Back in September, for example — not long after President Bush signed the policy but before it was publicly released — Donald Kerr, director of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), confirmed a press report that China had illuminated a U.S. satellite with a ground-based laser. Mr. Kerr did not provide any details, and it is not clear that the Chinese were testing an anti-satellite weapon.

But Mr. Kerr’s extraordinary public acknowledgement of what appears to be a provocative act on China’s part helped raise the profile of the potential threats that satellites — which are critical both to U.S. national security and to the global economy — face now and in the future.

Several weeks later, during a speech in Orlando, Fla., Mr. Kerr again brought up the subject of threats in space, this time in the context of the new space policy. He said that while the policy “ushered in additional discussion in the press on the issue of threats in space, many in the [intelligence and U.S. Defense Department] communities had been raising this, seeking higher priority for and more attention on this emerging issue. … From the NRO’s vantage point, we need to think proactively about this issue of threats and overall survivability of our systems.”

Like the 1996 document it supersedes, President Bush’s policy reserves America’s right to protect its own space assets and deny the use of space to those with hostile intent. It does not spell out specific measures for doing either.

Yet to arms control advocates, the new policy distinguished itself with what they characterize as a unilateralist and militaristic tone. Theresa Hitchens, director of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, has said the new policy, when taken together with earlier military documents, signals a clear intent by the administration to develop space weaponry.

There are many other aspects of the policy that are non-controversial and generally positive. These include guidelines that call for developing space professionals; strengthening the U.S. space industrial base; improving space acquisition; increasing interagency partnerships; and fostering a healthy commercial space sector. But these have been all but lost in the froth over space weapons.

There is much about space control that is misunderstood. The term refers to both the ability to protect one’s own space assets while denying the use of space to adversaries. What sometimes goes unstated is that there are ways to do both that fall well short of deploying anti-satellite weapons. In fact, the protection side of space control primarily involves benign, common-sense measures such as improving orbital surveillance capabilities, building more-robust satellites and networks, and beefing up security at ground stations. There are even ways of denying an enemy the use of its own satellites that do not involve destroying them.

Destructive anti-satellite weapons — not necessarily to be confused with space-based missile interceptors or strike weapons — are at the very end of a continuum of measures that fall under the space control umbrella. Though spelled out clearly in some military literature, these distinctions often get lost, perhaps deliberately at times, in policy-level debates on the subject. Meanwhile, military officials who have been calling for space-control measures have been markedly vague as to why they are needed — Mr. Kerr’s disclosure notwithstanding.

Now is a good time to lift the fog that has muddled the space control issue. There needs to be a candid discussion of all of the elements of space control and the options for achieving them — including a code of conduct for spacefaring nations as proposed by Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center. It was encouraging in that regard that the Senate Armed Services Committee, in its list of written questions submitted to defense secretary nominee Robert Gates prior to his confirmation hearing, included one seeking his thoughts on such a regime.

Congress is the most obvious venue for this parley to take place. Public hearings on the topic that were supposed to be held by the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee this year never materialized. These hearings should be high on the agenda of the next Congress. Hopefully, Mr. Joseph will help set the stage.