Lawmakers: Declassification would help boost public support for U.S. space programs

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Rep. Adam Schiff: 'Sometimes when you keep things classified that don't need to be, you breed a lot of public conspiratorial thinking'

WASHINGTON — The FireGuard program run by the National Guard and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency uses imagery collected by U.S. military satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles to produce maps that help detect and monitor wildfires. 

Pictures taken by military satellites are generally classified but the Defense Department and the intelligence community worked over the past year to declassify imagery needed for the FireGuard program so it could be widely shared with first responders in states like California and Colorado that faced devastating wildfires.  

“That’s a good illustration of how a form of declassification can do a great public good, and we ought to be looking for those opportunities,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Jan. 19.

“Part of what FireGuard does is to take intelligence products that would otherwise be classified and puts it in a form that can be shared and can be shared rapidly,” Schiff said during a video chat with reporters along with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.).

The three lawmakers last week visited Buckley Space Force Base, Colorado, where military units operate missile warning and intelligence satellites that collect much of the data used for the FireGuard program. 

Crow, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, supported a provision in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act that directs DoD to examine all Space Force programs to determine if the level of classification should be changed to a lower level, or if certain programs should be declassified entirely. 

The question of “over classification” of space programs has been brought up frequently by military leaders, including the chief of space operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, who has advocated for less secrecy so programs and technologies can be discussed with allies and with the broader public.  

Crow said it remains to be seen what comes out of the review mandated by the NDAA. “I think space has different needs in terms of declassification,” he said. 

It’s important for the public to “understand what’s happening in the space domain,” Crow added. “There’s a public education element here. It’s extremely important to understand the reason why there is a Space Force, understand the reason why there’s a Space Command and we’re making these public investments in new structures and units and technologies.”

As U.S. satellites increasingly become potential military targets, DoD needs to be able to work more closely with allies that may or may not have secret clearances, Crow suggested. “We need to protect national security secrets but at the same time we have to make sure that we are educating the public and also our allies, so we can have a unified response to these threats.”

Schiff said he subscribes to the idea that “it’s not appropriate to classify things because of a desire to avoid embarrassment, and we ought to bring fresh eyes to the classification process and determine what more can be shared safely with the American people.”

He said that was the thinking that drove the recent declassification of information about unidentified aerial phenomena, commonly referred to as UFOs. “Sometimes when you keep things classified that don’t need to be, you breed a lot of public conspiratorial thinking that may be at odds with the facts. And and so I think it’s warranted to try to scrutinize when we can be more open to the public.”