Secrecy News

Intelligence Satellite Imagery Declassified for Release

An enormous volume of photographic imagery from the KH-9 HEXAGON intelligence satellites was quietly declassified in January and will be transferred to the National Archives later this year for subsequent public release.

The KH-9 satellites operated between 1971 and 1984. The imagery they generated should be of historical interest with respect to a wide range of late Cold War intelligence targets but is also expected to support current scientific research on climate change and related fields of inquiry.

The film-based KH-9 satellites were officially declared “obsolete” by the Director of National Intelligence in 2011.  The KH-9 imagery was nominally approved for declassification in February 2012, and then it was finally declassified in fact this year.

ODNI spokesman Michael Birmingham said that approximately 97 percent of the satellite imagery that was collected from the 19 successful KH-9 missions was formally declassified by DNI James R. Clapper on January 11, 2013.

“The small amount of imagery exempted from this declassification decision will be removed prior to its accession to the National Archives (NARA) and will remain classified pursuant to statute and national security interests, and reviewed periodically to determine if additional declassification is warranted,” Mr. Birmingham said last week.

The imagery is being transferred to NARA in stages, with final delivery scheduled for September 2013, he said.

The transfer is being implemented pursuant to a November 2012 Memorandum of Agreement between the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the National Archives, under which the Archives is “responsible for providing public access to the declassified imagery.”

Reishia R. Kelsey of NGA public affairs confirmed that the imagery “will be made available to the public following its accession to NARA” later this year.

The National Archives was not prepared last week to set a precise date for public release.  But an Archives official said that “NARA intends to make these records available to the public at our research room in College Park, MD as soon as possible following transfer.”

If successfully executed, the release of the KH-9 imagery will constitute a breakthrough in the declassification and disclosure of national security information. It will be one of several discrete but momentous shifts in secrecy policy during the Obama Administration that have often gone unrecognized or unappreciated. Though these declassification actions took years or decades to accomplish, they have been downplayed by the White House itself, which has seemed curiously ambivalent about them.  They include the public disclosure of the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, the routine publication of the annual intelligence budget request, the release of the Office of Legal Counsel “torture memos,” the declassification of the KH-9 satellite itself, and others.

The KH-9 imagery is being processed for public release pursuant to the 1995 Executive Order 12951 on “Release of Imagery Acquired by Space-based National Intelligence Reconnaissance Systems.”  That order had been effectively dormant since the Clinton Administration, when the last major release of intelligence satellite imagery (from the CORONA, ARGON and LANYARD missions) took place.

The declassification of the KH-9 imagery is a massive undertaking, Mr. Birmingham of ODNI said last year.

“For context, and to grasp the scope of the project, the KH-9/HEXAGON system provided coverage over hundreds of millions of square miles of territory during its 19 successful missions spanning 1971-1984,” he said.  “It is a daunting issue to address declassification of the program specifics associated with an obsolete system such as the KH-9, which involves the declassification of huge volumes of intelligence information gathered on thousands of targets worldwide during a 13 year time period.”

3 thoughts on “Intelligence Satellite Imagery Declassified for Release

  1. I am wondering if people know how to access these Images online. I could not find a place where I could view them for free. It seems if they are available to the public they should be accessible via the internet as well, but am hoping someone can point me in the right direction. Thanks!!

  2. Harry, ONLINE??? You’re dreaming. Steven, even after September 2013 (its now March 2014) the KH-9 imagery is a nightmare to even locate at NARA/Cartographic:

    The hard copy overlays are useless. The thumb drive meta data provides half the answer. Then you have to manually ask them to translate your mission, pass and can data into a secret database they keep on a PC that translates NARA ON numbers into cold storage IM numbers. Then you have to fill out a new pull slip WITH an IM cold storage blue sheet.

    Then wait a week for them to pull the cans from Lenexa, then you can look at your cans for only three days, then they have to go back to Lenexa. Only then can you see if you even have the right can and frame number. If the area is not completely cloud covered , you may actually see your target facility– or not.

    If you ask for a copy of the ON-IM conversion spreadsheet data, they’re going to say no, because some of the cans (3%?) are still classified and they apparently don’t want to spend the time to create a redacted copy. KH-9 is pretty much still inaccessible. So much for the KH-9 film being “available.”

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