Lifting the Veil on NRO Satellite Systems and Ground Stations

Documents Trace Effort to Declassify the Operations of America’s Intelligence Satellite Agency – Published on The National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 392, by Jeffrey T. Richelson, October 4, 2012.

… 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 (see Documents 44, 45, 48).

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 efforts” (see Document 2, 3).

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 (see Document 16), 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 (see Document 17).

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 then-classified NRO).
  • Similarly, declassification actions may take place without public announcement.
  • 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 declassification.
  • 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 Ground Stations.

Lifting the Veil: … //

… (full long text, 3 Tables, Documents 1 to 74c and Notes 1 to 7).

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