Our intelligence community was shocked when Donald Trump tweeted out a photograph of a surveillance image of an Iranian missile that had blown up on its launch pad.
The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran. I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One. pic.twitter.com/z0iDj2L0Y3
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2019
It wasn't shocking that we were able to take a picture of Iran's failed launch. It has long been known that we could take surveillance pictures from space. What was shocking was just how high resolution the picture was. It was clear to analysts that this picture revealed information about our intelligence gathering capabilities that was classified top secret or higher. Of course, the President has the authority to declassify everything, but just because he can do something legally doesn't mean he should. Releasing too much information could compromise our intelligence-gathering capabilities or could even get our agents killed. It could also hinder our ability to recruit new agents to work in hostile countries for fear that they will be compromised.
And sure enough, Trump's tweet DID reveal too much. It took less than three days for amateur sleuths to identify and track the orbit of the satellite that took this picture. Dutch astronomer Marco Langbroek posted an article discussing how he and others were able to figure out exactly which satellite took the picture. Langroek concluded his article with some piercing questions.
And then the baffling question: why did President Trump tweet an image that otherwise would be considered highly classified?
The KH-11 satellites are classified, and so is imagery from these satellites. If an adversary gets her hands on KH-11 imagery, it reveals information about the optical capacities of these space assets.
In 1984, a Navy intelligence analyst was sent to prison for leaking three KH-11 images to the press.
Reconnaissance satellite imagery made public by the US Government itself over the past decades were either from commercial DigitalGlobe satellites, or purposely degraded in quality such as not to reveal the optical capacities of the KH-11. But now we see a US President tweet, on what appears to be a whim for the purpose of gloating, a very detailed image that as was shown in this post definitely was taken by a KH-11 satellite.
The occassion at which this happened, is eyebrow raising. A failed space launch hardly is a matter of great geopolitical concern. It is something trivial compared to e.g. imagery showing preparations for an invasion, the production of WMD, or atrocities against humanity. The latter could perhaps be argued to be a valid reason to publish imagery that also divulges the capacities of your best space-based imaging platforms: this occasion was not.
Which makes this a rather momentous occasion.
(note: there is a black block in the upper left of the image that seems to be placed there to redact some information that might have been printed there. I think it is likely this information was the time of image, space platform ID and the location of the latter. It points out that some deliberate thought was given to the release of this image, before it was tweeted).
Langroek speculated that someone gave some thought about the consequences of releasing this image before Trump tweeted it and had the most crucial information redacted. I doubt it was Trump who insisted that the information be redacted. It seems more likely that in the intelligence community feared the possibility of Trump doing exactly what he did, so the information was redacted from the information before Trump was briefed. But no matter who was responsible for redacting the information, the redaction was not enough to prevent our adversaries from discovering our satellite's capabilities and which satellite took the picture