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Internet, CD-ROMs Provide Quick Access to Quality Photos

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 8, 1996 – If images are powerful sources of information and persuaders of opinion, military leaders need -- and should demand -- timely, accurate, high-quality visual documentation of the operations they direct.


With this as his axiom, Army Col. John Kehoe has guided several initiatives to make Combat Camera images of military activities widely available to leaders and planners throughout DoD. Kehoe, director of defense visual information, used a pair of electronic tools to make thousands of images available: CD-ROM and the Internet.


About two years ago, his office compiled and distributed the first in a series of image collections on CD-ROM, "U.S. Forces in Somalia." Similar collections on American operations in Haiti and Bosnia followed. In addition, a reference CD-ROM called "Defense Images Digest" providing three images each with full captions of almost every major DoD weapon system, is about to be published.


All the CD-ROM collections are captioned and can be searched by keyword. Users can extract the images they want for briefings, reports, newsletters and visual displays, for example, by following simple instructions contained on the discs.


Carrying the "digital revolution" a step further, the office launched a World Wide Web site in 1995 that fundamentally changes distribution of military photography. Before the site went on-line, the Joint Combat Camera Center in the Pentagon distributed operational images to 50 customers. With the web site, it now delivers digital images to more than 1,000 registered Defense activities and customers. In September alone, the site recorded 105,000 Internet "visits."


"Images are powerful persuaders," Kehoe said. "Consider, for example, the impact of the images civilian news media sent back of events in Somalia. Initially they drove U.S. military involvement there, and later they certainly helped end it."


As a former unit commander, Kehoe said current images of the mission environment are important to military decision makers.


"Imagery of operational conditions provides commanders with an immediacy and 'you-are-there' perspective that will rarely be equaled by written or oral descriptions no matter how detailed they are," he said. "The intelligence community has long recognized the mission impact of imagery, but too often commanders and planners didn't see the images until well after the fact. As a result, the information provided by current imagery was lost to the decision-making process."


Digital images, however, changed all that. "The ability to easily move these images by such means as the Internet allows simultaneous delivery to a broad audience far more quickly than any past means," Kehoe said. "As a result, we've been able to open up the use of imagery throughout DoD.


"We feel it's our responsibility to provide current imagery  to commanders and planners at every level -- from tactical to strategic. In today's operational environment, where battlefields are poorly defined and missions constantly evolving, leaders need to see what's going on and not be limited to only reading about it."


Not surprisingly, planning agencies such as the Joint Staff quickly became big users of the new Internet site. "Since most briefings are now electronic," Kehoe said, "we have an extraordinary demand for digital images." And it didn't take long for people other than operations planners to catch on. "When we posted images of the Sava River bridge crossing [in Bosnia], operations wanted the pictures to evaluate the environment, public affairs wanted images for release to the news media, and the military academies wanted the images as a classroom resource."


By converting paper and film to digital images, however, the photographs become more susceptible to manipulation, or altering, the colonel said. "We needed a safeguard against manipulation, so we developed the first federal policy that talks to this issue. Basically we are saying to editors, 'Don't alter the reality of the event.'"


As an example, Kehoe displayed two photographs of a helicopter approaching a field encampment. In one, a utility pole and lines are clearly evident near the landing zone. In a second photo of the same scene, the pole and lines are missing -- removed, perhaps, to make the scene less cluttered and more attractive for a presentation.


"Mission planners need to know that utility pole is there and could obstruct a helicopter landing," Kehoe contended. "That's what I mean by 'reality of event.' In this digital age, where information is broadly shared, we cannot afford to play fast and loose with facts -- regardless of whether they are based on text or images.


"Even if there is no apparent mission impact caused by an image alteration, the cumulative effect of such minor alterations is a weakening and even loss of credibility of the source [DoD]."

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