Trends

See SPOT See SPOT Bust a Government Monopoly

When the Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant sprang a leak last year, Soviet authorities were predictably reticent. Then high-resolution photographs of the accident started showing up on Western television, and the charade that all was well was exposed.

The technology to thank for the Chernobyl pictures is a civilian French eye-in-the-sky satellite named SPOT, launched in February 1986. From an orbiting altitude of 517 miles, SPOT sends back images whose resolution can be enhanced by computer to less than 16 feet-comparable to the precision of some of the spy satellites operated by the U.S. and Soviet governments.

As Puzzle Palace author James Bamford pointed out in an essay in the Los Angeles Times, "For decades the intelligence agencies of the United States and the Soviet Union held a monopoly on photographic espionage from space." Now SPOT has broken the monopoly-and given citizens access to heretofore top-secret superpower activities.

Since Chernobyl, SPOT has given Western viewers a look at a Soviet nuclear test site, a mysterious space complex, and military facilities along the Kola Peninsula. Previously governments alone had access to such information. Now, news organizations don't need to be dependent on what information governments will release to them.

Of course, satellite technology is a double-edged sword in the Cold War, and that makes American centurions nervous. Satellites that can expose Soviet military buildups or the shifting of forces can do the same to the U.S. military establishment.

But Lt. Gen. James A. Williams, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, speculates that "commercial use of space photography may be an inhibitor to world conflict." As Bamford quoted Williams: "Suppose we and the Free World had had a commercial capability to monitor the Afghanistan-Soviet border in 1979. It would have been virtually impossible for the Russians to have said they were really not up to anything... when in fact the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC, or anybody else could have said that's a boldfaced lie, we can show you the proof."

Purchases of high-resolution satellites by American news organizations, though still in the talking stage, look likely. Price estimates range from $140 million to $400 million-well below, for instance, ABC's $700 million budget for the 1988 Winter Olympics. Private rocket-launch firms expect network news organizations to be among their initial customers for satellite launching.

The U.S. government, ever alert to possible threats to its cloak of secrecy, may try to throw up a few roadblocks. News organizations will have to obtain a license from the Commerce Department to operate photo-surveillance satellites. Private space firms need similar permission to launch their vehicles. But Commerce, before giving the okay, will check with the State and Defense departments to determine whether the media's exercise of newsgathering rights might endanger that elastic old warhorse, "national security."

The Los Angeles Times warns citizens to expect the heavens to be one of the next battlefields in the struggle between the free press and state power. The people start with two advantages: the Constitution is on their side and so are numerous foreign newsgathering services outside the reach of U.S. regulators. The monopoly's already been broken. And if Lieutenant General Williams is right, we're better off even from a foreign-policy point of view.

Rewriting the Medicare Prescription

We pay, pay, pay for our politicians' promises, promises, promises, and the Medicare system is a frightening example of the financial disaster that results from this close-your-eyes-and-make-a-wish behavior. Taxpayers and politicians of all stripes are now asking: How can we prevent Medicare-which has become the primary health insurance for Americans over 65-from becoming Medimess? The National Chamber Foundation (ncf), a public-policy research organization affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, recently issued a task-force report with a good answer: rein in the government and unleash the free market. "Catastrophic and Long-Term Health Care: Private Sector Alternatives" comes at a propitious moment.

In January 1985, President Reagan had asked Health and Human Services Secretary Otis Bowen to report by year-end "on how the private sector and government can work together" to address the need for catastrophic health insurance-that is, acute-care coverage that exceeds Medicare's limits. In December, Bowen reported back with a grand scheme: have Medicare pay all of a retiree's acute care costs beyond a $2,000 annual deductible, regardless of his income or assets.

But this expansion of Medicare, like the Medicare system itself, would predictably end up costing taxpayers far more than anticipated. And besides, according to the NCF report, the real issue of concern in health care for the elderly lies elsewhere.

About 70 percent of aged Americans already have private "Medigap" coverage for catastrophic expenses. Half of the remaining are covered by Medicaid, and private coverage is available to the rest. But neither Medicare nor most private insurers now provide coverage for the often-devastating costs of long-term care, such as nursing homes. The government already pays about half of these expenses, through Medicaid. "And it could hardly be expected to pay for more," notes the NCF report. What to do?

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