Secrecy News

Large Release of Intelligence Imagery Foreseen

Millions of feet of film of historical imagery from intelligence satellites may be declassified this year, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) said.

“The NGA is anticipating the potential declassification of significant amounts of film-based imagery… in 2011,” according to an NGA announcement that solicited contractor interest in converting the declassified film into digital format.  It was published in Federal Business Opportunities on February 14, 2011.  A copy is posted here (pdf).

For planning purposes, the NGA told potential contractors to assume the need to digitize “approximately 4 million linear feet of film up to approximately 7 inches in width.”  The imagery is “stored on 500 foot spools, with many frames up to several feet in length.”  A nominal start date of October 1, 2011 was specified for the digitization project.

The NGA announcement also suggested that the winning contractor would “retain rights to distribute declassified imagery and recoup investment, for a specified period of time (negotiable).”  This would be problematic if it implied that the contractor had exclusive access to the declassified film and could prevent others from digitizing selected portions of it.

The declassification of historical intelligence satellite imagery has been largely dormant for many years.  President Clinton’s 1995 executive order 12951 promised a periodic review of classified imagery “with the objective of making  available to the public as much imagery as possible consistent with the interests of national defense and foreign policy.”  In particular, a review of obsolete film-return systems, such as the KH-8 GAMBIT and the KH-9 HEXAGON, was to be completed within five years.  This was not done, or produced no results if it was done.

During her confirmation process to become Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Stephanie O’Sullivan recently noted the existence of an ODNI effort that started last year “to reinvigorate the declassification of imagery for public release.”  (“Nomination Sheds New Light on Intel Policy,” Secrecy News, February 22, 2011).

3 thoughts on “Large Release of Intelligence Imagery Foreseen

  1. I’m not sure I understand the comment regard GAMBIT and HEXAGON. I believe that imagery has, in fact, been declassified. I’ve been in the unclassified stacks at the National Archives and I’ve seen the cans containing the film, or at least some of the film. I can’t swear that it was everything, of course.

    My understanding was that the film was declassified, but not information about the system that produced it.

  2. You are (at least partly) right, and I was inaccurate. As noted by Dwayne Day in The Space Review article linked above, “The GAMBIT has already been partially declassified in several steps. In 2002 the government released most of the KH-7 imagery.”

    As I understand it, what remains to be declassified is the remainder of the KH-7 GAMBIT imagery, as well as imagery from the KH-8 GAMBIT and the KH-9 HEXAGON.

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