Top secret Twitter: How trolling Iran with classified satellite imagery could backfire on the U.S.
In 1991, soon after Operation Desert storm commenced bombing Iraq, the director of the National Reconnaissance Office — the U.S. spy satellite agency whose very existence would remain a state secret for another year — got a call from Colin Powell.
The media-savvy general wanted to show news reporters satellite images of Iraqi targets U.S. laser-guided smart bombs and cruise missiles had taken out with destroyed with surgical precision. Powell asked the NRO if he had the authority, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to declassify damage assessments collected by U.S. spy satellites.
“I said no,” Martin Faga, the NRO’s director at the time, recalls telling Powell. “I reminded him that only the president of the United States has the power to declassify satellite images.”
Powell was pressed for time, so Faga suggested a solution. “We could modify the pictures, smear out the things we worry about being released to the public and turn them into posters,” Faga told SpaceNews. “We could do that in a couple of hours and put them on a stand.”
Late last month, President Donald Trump tweeted from his iPhone an image captured by a classified spy satellite of an Iranian launchpad damaged the day before by a space launch attempt gone astray.
“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran,” Trump tweeted Aug. 30, not long after his daily intelligence briefing. “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.”
That Iran’s Safir rocket had exploded while sitting on a launchpad at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in northern Iran wasn’t breaking news at that point. National Public Radio, relying on a full-color overhead image of the still-smoking pad captured by one of commercial imaging firm Planet’s SkySat satellites, reported the mishap the day it happened.
Later the same day, NPR published a more-detailed color image gathered by Maxar Technologies’ WorldView-2 satellite, a bigger, more powerful spacecraft capable of resolving objects on the ground as small as 46 centimeters. The company’s WorldView-3 satellite, launched in 2014, is even more powerful, capable of collecting 25-centimeter-resolution imagery, the highest resolution satellite imagery Maxar is permitted to sell on the commercial market. Planet’s SkySat, in contrast, can resolve objects as small a 72 centimeters.
The image Trump shared with his 64.5 million Twitter followers, while black and white, was so much more detailed than the SkySat and WorldView-2 imagery NPR published that some commentators initially assumed was taken by a surveillance drone operating inside Iranian airspace.
Experts, including satellite tracker Marco Langbroek, however, say the image was almost certainly taken by one of the KH11-class of electro-optical imaging satellites the NRO has been launching since the late 1970s. Faga agrees with that conclusion. “The trackers are right since the orbit of the NRO satellite was linked to the time of day of the photo.”
Although nearly everything about the NRO’s so-called Keyhole satellite program remains classified, it’s something of an open secret in the space industry that the initial KH-11 satellites were built by Lockheed Martin around the same 2.4-meter mirror that company used in building the Hubble Space Telescope that the KH-11’s are said to resemble in both size and shape.
While experts believe some KH-11 satellites are capable of resolving objects as small as 5 or 6 centimeters depending on mirror size, orbital altitude and other factors, the image Trump tweeted Sept. 30 appears to have been taken at 10-centimeter resolution.
“Nobody on this panel was probably surprised by the quality of the data,” Emiliano Kargieman, founder and CEO of Satellogic, a satellite operator and geospatial analytics firm based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, said Sept. 12 during a Summit on Earth Observation Business panel discussion at the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris. “For the world in general, it might be an eye-opener.”
Nevertheless, Trump’s tweet provoked an intense — if short-lived — media uproar, with many questioning the legality and advisability of the president sharing an smartphone snap of a presumably classified briefing chart.
But Trump’s tweet, wise or not, was the latest reminder that as president he has the power to declassify many state secrets, including classified satellite imagery with the potential to reveal sources and methods of U.S. intelligence gathering.
“The president has the ability to declassify information but that is normally done through a coordinated process,” a space industry executive told SpaceNews. “This was impulse. It was clearly someone who had not spent his career in intel.”
“If I had done that, I would be spending 20 years in Leavenworth,” the executive added. “It reveals or validates sources and methods — not just the existence of that capability, but which satellite took it and where it was.”
Faga, who ran the NRO from 1989 to 1993 and oversaw the declassification of the Chantilly, Virginia-based spy agency after three decades of secret existence, said the image Trump tweeted did not reveal any “unexpected capability of the satellite.”
Still, he said he understands why some people were angered by the apparently hasty release of a satellite image stamped classified. “But they are missing the point: If the president puts it out, it’s no longer classified,” Faga said. “Most classifications exist by executive order.” The only exceptions are specific types of information protected in the law such as National Security Agency wiretaps, which the president cannot waive.
Michael Elleman, director of the Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington, said Trump’s tweet did not reveal anything about Iran’s pre-launch failure that wasn’t apparent from the lower-resolution commercial imagery.
“When I saw the Planet and the Maxar images, I immediately concluded it was a pre-launch failure,” Elleman told SpaceNews. “That was fairly easily determined. You could still see the launch tower in an upright position. They typically lower it before the launch.”
The Safir is a two-stage rocket capable of lifting roughly 65 kilograms to low Earth orbit. Iran has successfully launched the rocket four times since 2009 and suffered at least two failures prior to the Aug. 29 launch preparation accident.
Elleman said the satellite imagery suggests something went wrong while fueling the rocket. “It’s pretty clear that they spilled a lot of fuel and oxidizer across the pad.”
Faga told SpaceNews he was at a loss to explain the possible motive behind Trump’s tweet. “What was the value? I don’t get it.”
Asked by reporters Aug. 30 why he tweeted the classified satellite image, Trump said: “We had a photo and I released it, which I have the absolute right to do.”
One possible motivation was to bolster the administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran. On Sept. 3, three days after Trump sent Iran his presumably tongue-in-cheek condolences along with a satellite image showing off U.S. space prowess, the State Department announced the United States was imposing sanctions on the Iranian Space Agency and two of its research institutes “for engaging in proliferation-sensitive activities.”
Sanctioning Iran is nothing new. But this was the first time the U.S. has gone after Iran’s civilian space agency for activities that, according to the Trump administration, advance that country’s ballistic missile program.
“The United States will not allow Iran to use its space launch program as cover to advance its ballistic missile programs,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “Iran’s August 29 attempt to launch a space launch vehicle underscores the urgency of the threat.”
Elleman said there is no evidence that the failed Aug. 29 launch, Iran’s third such failure this year, is directly connected to any ballistic missile development. “Making this about ballistic missile proliferation is very inconsistent with the facts,” he said.
Iran’s space program is trying to put satellites in orbit, Elleman said. “I don’t know of any of Iran’s liquid-fueled satellite launchers that have been converted into an ICBM. It’s always gone the other way around, where ICBMs are converted for use as satellite launchers.”
Iran is a relative newcomer to spaceflight. After successfully launching a solid-fueled sounding rocket in 2007 that analysts say is likely based on Iran’s Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile, Iran graduated to orbital space launch in February 2009 with the launch of the liquid-fueled Safir-1 rocket carrying a small satellite that spent seven weeks in orbit before reentering the atmosphere. In 2010, Iran unveiled a larger three-stage rocket, the Simorgh, designed to carry 150 kilograms to low Earth orbit. The Simorgh has failed to reach orbit in three attempts since 2016. The most recent failure occurred in January.
Elleman said that while the technologies and components employed by satellite launchers and long-range ballistic missiles are similar, there’s no real proof that Iran’s space launch program is a cover for ICBM development. The Simorgh’s configuration is consistent with a rocket optimized for satellite launches, Elleman said, not ballistic missile trajectories. Preparation time also makes space vehicles unlikely covers for ICBMs. Prior to liftoff, launch vehicles are prepared over a period of many days or weeks. Ballistic missiles, on the other hand, are concealed and have to be ready to fire quickly to avoid being destroyed before launch. “If Iran seeks to transform the Simorgh into a long-range missile, engineers would still need to flight test it as a ballistic missile a dozen or more times before it could be deemed a dependable, operationally viable and accurate weapon,” he said. That is why Iran and other countries tend to convert ballistic missiles into satellite launchers, not the reverse.
“Do they learn something from these launches that could be applied to missile development? Yes, but it’s not decisive in any way shape or form,” he said. “So I was a little surprised to see that the U.S. has decided to sanction Iran’s space program. I think it is counterproductive. But consistent with the administration’s march to apply maximum pressure on Iran, and it’s an easy thing for them to do.”
HASTY TWEET, LASTING IMPACT?
Trump’s hasty release of a classified satellite image of an already widely reported Iranian satellite launch failure proved nothing other than that at least one U.S. spy satellite with Hubble-size mirror was keeping an eye on the launch preparations.
To the public, the taunting tweet was just another Trump-orchestrated kerfuffle, a controversy de jour quickly overshadowed by a hurricane forecast map doctored with a Sharpie to validate Trump’s specious claim about the storm’s path.
But to Elleman and other experts, the gratuitous release of a classified satellite image could have lasting consequences.
Elleman said Trump is correct that he had full authority to release the image, “but the question is whether it was a smart thing to do. And I would argue it was not.”
James R. Clapper, the former director of national intelligence who ran the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency from 2001 to 2006, agreed.
“You can bet every adversary is going to school on what’s been exposed,” Clapper told The New York Times. “I can’t see what the point was, other than to make fun of the Iranians.”
Elleman said Trump tweeting a classified photo for no apparent diplomatic gain “does some material damage to the perception that information shared with the United States won’t find its way into the press.”
A lot of intelligence is collected by satellites owned by allied nations that typically share it with the United States. Trump’s action could have a chilling effect, said Elleman. “If I’m an ally, I may be more reluctant to share intelligence with the U.S. for fear that it could find its way into the public domain.”
Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the nonpartisan Arms Control Association in Washington, said the tweet was classic Trump, trolling Iran by disavowing any U.S. involvement in the launch failure. “Which was not a smart move because even if we weren’t involved in the failure, it could have prompted Iran to think that we were in fact behind it,” Reif said. “Overall, Trump’s Iran policy is an incoherent mess.”
SAUDI OIL ATTACKS PROVIDE SECOND PHOTO OP
Two weeks after Trump preemptively denied U.S. involvement in the latest demoralizing launch failure for Iran, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were heavily damaged in coordinated air strikes.
In the wake of Sept. 14 attacks, which temporarily reduced Saudi oil production by half, the Trump administration employed satellite imagery to point the finger at Iran and dispute claims that Yemeni Houthi rebels carried out the air strikes with drones. As of press time, the Trump administration had released no spy satellite imagery of the aftermath, relying instead on commercial satellites to make the case that Iran was behind the wave of at least 17 cruise missiles and drones to strike the Saudi Aramco facilities. “Without prejudging intelligence, this looked like a very complex, precise attack, not consistent with previous Houthi attacks,” Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Sept. 17.
Dunford also implied the Defense Department might not have spy satellite evidence of who launched the attack, saying the U.S. doesn’t have an “unblinking eye” over the Middle East. “Our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities are focused on threats routinely to us; we wouldn’t necessarily see everything that goes on in the region,” he said.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 23, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.