By Warren Strobel and Andrea Shalal
TAMPA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. intelligence community has thrown its support behind a bid by commercial space imagery provider DigitalGlobe Inc to sell higher resolution images from its satellites, the leading U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday.
DigitalGlobe has pressed the government for years to allow it to sell such imagery but U.S. government agencies worried that giving public access to them could undermine the intelligence advantage they have from even higher resolution satellite images.
The green light from the U.S. intelligence community follows rapid advances by non-U.S. space imagery companies that have raised concerns DigitalGlobe could lose market share if it is not allowed to compete on high resolution images.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told an industry conference that U.S. intelligence agencies had agreed to allow commercial providers to sell higher resolution imagery but that the decision still needed approval by other agencies.
Clapper said the recommendation "certainly bodes well for the industry."
DigitalGlobe applied nearly one year ago for a license to increase the resolution of its imagery from 50 cm to 25 cm. It welcomed Clapper's remarks and said it hoped the U.S. government would act quickly to finalize the decision.
The difference would allow observers to discern not just a car seen by a satellite, but also the make of the car.
Clapper did not specify what exact resolution the intelligence agencies had approved, but two sources familiar with the process said they expected him to approve a phased implementation over the course of this year.
Letitia Long, director of the U.S. government's National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, told reporters that American spy agencies have "essentially endorsed that request" by DigitalGlobe to sell 25-cm imagery.
The Colorado-based company is preparing to launch its new WorldView 3 satellite in August, which would allow the company to sell imagery accurate to 31 cm, a company spokesman said.
"DigitalGlobe appreciates the intelligence community's support for reforms to the current U.S. regulations," said Walter Scott, founder and chief technical officer of DigitalGlobe.
"We are hopeful that the administration will act promptly on this issue to advance the nation's commanding lead in this strategically important industry," he added.
Jeffrey Harris, a former director of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office and industry expert, said the decision to allow sales of higher resolution commercial imagery would help industry and the U.S. government by increasing transparency.
Allowing commercial providers to sell more accurate imagery at an affordable price would allow the U.S. government to spend its money and energy on higher-end government-owned capabilities, said Harris, who was elected Tuesday as president of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.
Long said the advances by non-U.S. companies were a significant factor in the intelligence community decision to endorse DigitalGlobe's request.
"If you survey the world and what is going on in the international arena, many countries are making progress," she said. "We want our U.S. companies to be able to compete."
Long would not predict how long the White House review of the matter would take.
A second source familiar with the imagery market said officials from the Defense and Commerce departments, intelligence agencies and the White House met to discuss the matter on Friday.
More senior officials must still approve the move, said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly, but it was not immediately clear when that could occur.
(Reporting by Warren Strobel in Tampa and Andrea Shalal in Washington; editing by Andrew Hay)