WASHINGTON – Many of the commercial companies that are openly sharing satellite imagery of Ukraine work with the U.S. government but are not restricted in what they can share, Stacey Dixon, principal deputy director of national intelligence, said April 13.

The U.S. intelligence community has a “great partnership” with commercial imagery suppliers, but a lot of the imagery seen daily on news and social media are the result of “companies independently wanting to be able to share more of what’s happening in the world,” Dixon said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“And frankly, I think it’s a great service that they’re providing, putting the information out there,” Dixon said of the commercial imagery providers. “I’m glad we were able to sort of spur it. But now, they’re actually leading in many ways and putting information out for others to see.”

As Russia prepared to invade Ukraine, the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency more than doubled the procurement of commercial electro-optical imagery over Ukraine from companies like Maxar, BlackSky and Planet and sent it directly to allies. 

It’s easier for commercial companies to release open-source information at a rapid pace whereas in the government “we would have to declassify if we were to use our classified sources,” Dixon said. “Companies are able to actually just go forward and they’re putting things out there that we aren’t asking them to put out.”

Beware of instant analysis

Dixon said the U.S. intelligence community for years has supported efforts to bring in more open source information into daily operations. “There’s a lot of really useful information out there to complement the classified information we have,” she said.

But Dixon cautioned that the vast amounts of imagery now available also enables sloppy analysis. The vast amount of imagery now “puts us into a different place where we are not the sole ones to have access to that information and there’s a lot of other people now looking at what’s happening around the world,” Dixon added. “I know the rigor with which our analysts interpret information. I don’t know the rigor with which all other analysts interpret information.”

Dixon said she hears people make predictions, for example, about the war in Ukraine based on images. “I’ve seen some with perhaps less rigor in their analysis, make statements and claims,” she said. Government analysts tend to be more cautious and “would not take the next step to say that this is absolutely going to be what’s going to happen next.”

CSIS associate Nina Easton asked Dixon why the U.S. intelligence community did not predict the difficulties the Russian military would have in Ukraine.

“There are certain things that are very difficult to know 100%,” Dixon said. When a country is invaded by a foreign power, “how people think about it, how people on the ground are going to experience it, what their reaction is going to be, what their will is going to be in the face of someone coming in and invading their country … all that is very tough to predict.”

Asked what she has learned about the Russian military that she didn’t already know, Dixon said the learning “is still ongoing. Many people are watching the situation and rethinking what we’ve seen historically, what we might have thought would have happened.”

A lot of countries have been looking at this, and “making their own assessments as to what this means about Russia’s military, about Ukraine, about what’s going to happen in other countries,” Dixon said. “It’s a very challenging and disturbing time that we’re in right now.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...