Trump tweeted an image of a spy satellite showing a declassified document

Three years ago, Donald Trump tweeted an image that left intelligence experts stunned.

The image showed a missile exploding on a launch pad deep inside Iran. It was so sharp that some initially thought it might not have been captured by a satellite.

“This image is so exquisite and you can see so much detail,” says Jeffrey Lewis, who studies satellite imagery at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey. “At first I thought it must have been taken by a drone or something.”

However, aerospace experts quickly discovered that it was photographed with one of America’s most prized intelligence agencies: a secret spacecraft dubbed the USA 224, which is widely believed to be a multi-billion dollar KH-11 reconnaissance satellite.

A screenshot of Trump's August 30, 2019 tweet.

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@realDonaldTrump

Now, three years after Trump’s tweet, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has officially declassified the original image. The declassification, which was 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 of the original image remain obscured — a clear sign that Trump shared some of the US government’s most prized spy images on social media, says Steven Aftergood, secrecy and classification specialist at the Federation of American Scientists.

“He literally got 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 spill it on Twitter.”

The revelation comes just days after Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2024. It also follows the FBI’s August seizure of 33 boxes containing over a hundred classified records held at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. According to the Washington Post, some of these documents were said to have referred to Iran.

The NGA, which produced the image Trump used in his 2019 tweet, is the government’s clearinghouse for much of its information. The agency collects images from drones, spy planes and satellites and converts them into information that can be used by decision-makers.

It’s not uncommon for these people to want to share what they see, says Robert Cardillo, who served as the NGA’s director from 2014 to 2019. Often, he says, he would suggest the government release a lower-resolution image from a commercial via satellite instead. “This has been done from time to time to protect that source, but then also to extract the information,” says Cardillo.

He says he doesn’t recall ever seeing the authorized publication of an image like the one tweeted by President Trump.

Trump reportedly first saw the image during a daily intelligence briefing the morning after the Iranian launch failed. In the most complete account of what happened next, Yahoo! News, President Trump asked to keep a copy of the photo, which was from a KH-11 series satellite. An hour later, he sent it to more than 60 million followers on Twitter.

NPR has not independently verified this coverage, but it is clear that the image in the tweet was a photo of a physical piece of paper, Lewis says. At the center of Trump’s tweet is a glow from overhead lights, or a flash, and a shadow, possibly of Trump or an aide photographing the image with a camera.

The image tweeted by President Trump shows a bright light in the center, most likely an overhead light or the flash from a cellphone camera used to photograph the original slide.

The image tweeted by President Trump shows a bright light in the center, most likely an overhead light or the flash from a cellphone camera used to photograph the original slide.

Some of the text tweeted by the president also used the exact wording of the then-secret caption, indicating his tweet was based on the NGA briefing document released to NPR.

After tweeting the picture, Trump said he had done nothing wrong. “We had a photo and I published it, which I have every right to do,” he told reporters at the time. The President has ultimate authority over what material is classified, and Aftergood says he was likely within his legal rights to release the image.

Cardillo, who now works as an executive for commercial satellite company Planet, says images aren’t as classified as they used to be. The proliferation of commercial imaging satellites means that the public now has regular access to overhead views that are comparable, if not as good, to US government satellites. Over the course of his career, he saw the classification levels for spy satellite imagery loosen.

“Because there’s so much commercial imagery, I feel like there’s less sensitivity,” he says.

But that picture was still classified, and Lewis says the release was likely a sting for the intelligence agencies involved.

“The entire US intelligence community is incredibly reluctant to release this information,” says Lewis. “The notion that the president would just say ‘YOLO!’ yelling, photographing and tweeting – it’s really hard to take.”

Cardillo says he’s sure other countries have used Trump’s tweeted image to learn more about what US spy satellites can do. For example, if Putin tweeted a photo from a Russian satellite, he says the US would put together a task force to learn all sorts of things from the image.

In the case of Trump’s tweet, “My guess is that Russia would have done the same and Iran would have done the same,” he says.

Aftergood says the latest release “confirms a kind of ruthlessness on the part of former President Trump and also a disrespect for the rather astounding information he received.”

For Lewis, the incident says something about Trump’s ability to handle classified documents as he heads into the 2024 presidential race.

“I would not give this man any information that I wanted to remain private,” says Lewis. “The idea that he could regain access to classified information is disturbing.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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