National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
Three years ago, Donald Trump tweeted an image that left intelligence experts gobsmacked.
The picture was of a rocket that had exploded on a launch pad deep inside of Iran. It was so crisp, that some initially thought it may not have been taken by a satellite.
“This picture is so exquisite, and you see so much detail,” says Jeffrey Lewis, who studies satellite imagery at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “At first, I thought it must have been taken by a drone or something.”
But aerospace experts quickly determined it was photographed using one of America’s most prized intelligence assets: a classified spacecraft called USA 224 that is widely believed to be a multibillion-dollar KH-11 reconnaissance satellite.
Now, three years after Trump’s tweet, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has formally declassified the original image. The declassification, which came as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request by NPR, followed a grueling Pentagon-wide review to determine whether the image could be shared with the public.
Many details on the original image remain redacted – a clear sign that Trump was sharing some of the U.S. government’s most prized spy images on social media, says Steven Aftergood, specialist in secrecy and classification at the Federation of American Scientists.
“He was getting literally a bird’s eye view of some of the most sensitive US intelligence on Iran,” he says. “And the first thing he seemed to want to do was to blurt it out over Twitter.”
The revelation comes just days after Trump announced his bid to run for president in 2024. It also follows the FBI’s seizure in August of 33 boxes filled with over one hundred classified records, stored at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Some of those documents were reportedly related to Iran, according to the Washington Post.
The NGA, which produced the image Trump used in his 2019 tweet, is the government’s clearing house for much of its intelligence. The agency collects images from drones, spy planes and satellites and turns them into information that can be used by…