Some Historical Intelligence Satellite Imagery Declassified

02.01.12 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

A handful of historical intelligence satellite images were declassified last month to coincide with a new display of the GAMBIT and HEXAGON spy satellites at the National Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

The GAMBIT and HEXAGON satellites were formally declassified last September on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the National Reconnaissance Office.  At that time, the NRO released voluminous documentation on the development of those satellites.  But the associated imagery, which is held by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, was not released.  Now a small number of satellite images have been made public.

However, the newly disclosed images are not originals, but are embedded in “posters” published by the NRO.  As such, they do not lend themselves to detailed analysis, complained Charles P. Vick of GlobalSecurity.org.  Nor are the original negatives of the declassified photos available for public inspection.

There is an annotation on the released images indicating that they were declassified on January 13, 2012 by the Director of National Intelligence, which would be consistent with the provisions of the 1995 executive order 12951.

“The images have undoubtedly been degraded, because GAMBIT and HEXAGON’s best imagery capabilities remain classified,” wrote Dwayne Day in The Space Review. “These photographs are hopefully the first in many yet to come, and will help us better understand the battles in the shadows of the Cold War.”

Among other things, the NRO also released a new edition of the 1973 histories of GAMBIT and HEXAGON written by Robert L. Perry.

“Perry’s histories… serve as exemplars of the art and craft of historians. They are rich in detail, well-sourced, and written with engaging prose,” according to an informative introduction by James D. Outzen of the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance.

Unfortunately, the new edition, while handsome, is not exemplary because it obscures the redaction of material that is still considered classified:  “With respect to redacted material, we have edited the volumes to smooth the flow of language in the volume, rather than indicate where material was redacted.”  This was a mistake.

Remarkably, the NRO initiative to declassify GAMBIT and HEXAGON program information, including imagery, dates back to 1997.  At that time, a seven-month implementation schedule was optimistically anticipated.

“I would like to hiqhliqht this declassification effort with a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) ceremony (including the release of selected declassified imagery from both systems) in October 1997,” wrote NRO Deputy Director Keith R. Hall in a March 1997 memorandum that was obtained by Jeffrey Richelson of the National Security Archive.

As it turned out, the declassification process took 14 years, not seven months.