LIFTING THE VEIL ON NRO SATELLITE SYSTEMS AND GROUND STATIONS
- *20121004-LIFTING THE VEIL ON NRO SATELLITE SYSTEMS AND GROUND STATIONS*
Documents Trace Effort to Declassify the Operations of America's
Intelligence Satellite Agency
► National Security Archive / by Jeffrey T. Richelson
Oct 4 2012 ► Oct 4. Today, the National Security Archive posts the fourth
in a series of electronic briefing books concerning secrecy and satellite
reconnaissance - one of the most sensitive areas of U.S.
intelligence-gathering. Specific satellite programs whose declassification
is covered in this briefing book include some of the earliest and, at the
time, most secretive programs of their kind: CORONA, ARGON, LANYARD, GRAB,
POPPY, GAMBIT, HEXAGON, and QUILL.
The 78-document collection, obtained mostly under the Freedom of
Information Act, consists of eight parts covering declassification actions
from 1973 to 2012 involving satellite programs, ground stations, and
launches. With a focus on the decades-long debate within the U.S.
intelligence community over the unveiling of one of America's most advanced
spy systems, these materials not only describe
previously unknown facts about the NRO's operations, but provide a
fascinating look at the challenges involved in attempting to declassify
information on U.S. intelligence activities.
For example, long gaps can exist between the date a particular satellite
program has been terminated and the date information about it is released
-- up to almost four decades in some cases. Even then, major portions of
the program may remain classified, sometimes because they relate to
technical data or the wide-ranging justification of protecting "sources and
methods," and sometimes because of a policy decision to conceal substantive
information, such as imagery covering the state of Israel.
According to the documents, even when a move is made to create more
transparency, it can sometimes be the occasion for active
misrepresentation. This was the case with a plan in 1972 to allow the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to use weather data
from hitherto classified Air Force satellite missions. In order to
accomplish this, the then-head of NRO proposed rewriting history by
designating the next satellite launch in an ongoing series as the first
operational launch, and all previous (classified) launches as merely "R&D
While the usually overwhelming reflex within the intelligence community is
to keep most of its materials classified, this collection shows that
arguments do surface internally for allowing at least certain information
to reach the public. Beyond the perceived political need to respond to
outside pressures, an understanding exists in some quarters - including at
high levels - that benefits can and do accrue to the community, including
actually strengthening the integrity of the security system itself.
Among the specific revelations in the collection:
* Original plans for declassification of the weather satellite effort
called for misrepresenting earlier operational satellites as part of a
"research and development" effort.
* The first NRO-developed system to be declassified - a weather satellite -
was publicly acknowledged in 1973 (but without reference to the
* Similarly, declassification actions may take place without public
* Declassification of the "fact of" QUILL as a radar imager and subsequent
declassification of programmatic details about the satellite was triggered
by a single Freedom of Information Act request.
* The interval between the conclusion of an NRO space collection program
and its declassification ranges between two and four decades.
* There was an eight-year gap between the initiation of the effort to
declassify the POPPY electronic intelligence satellite and ultimate
* There was a fourteen-year gap between the initial NRO-initiative to
declassify programmatic details of the GAMBIT and HEXAGON programs and
their actual declassification.
* The current (and in some cases new) designations for five key NRO Mission
Life is illusory and as fleeting as a bubble in a stream.
~ from the Diamond Sutra, the oldest printed book known, circa 868 AD
"Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!": "Look behind
you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you'll die!”
~ Tertullian in his Apologeticus.
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