News

Conference Marks Release of Declassified Satellite Imagery

David Darlington, November 2002

On September 20, 2002, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) held a one-day conference titled "America's Eyes: What We Were Seeing," at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) campus in Adelphi, Maryland to mark the release of approximately 50,000 images collected by the KH-7 and KH-9 satellite programs. This conference was part of NIMA's Historical Imagery Declassification (HID) program, which oversees the release of formerly classified satellite imagery to the general public via the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). A majority of the more than 200 attendees were military and intelligence professionals or imagery experts, but academics from the fields of history and geography were also well represented.

Satellite photograph of Washington, DC, dated February 19, 1966, from the KH-7 Mission 4025. Courtesy of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.

The KH-7 surveillance system, which operated from July 1963 to June 1967, was the U.S. intelligence communit's first high-resolution or "spotting" imaging satellite. Capable of imaging areas 12nm wide, and 5–400nm long, the KH-7 initially had a best resolution of four feet (1.2 meters) on the ground, which was improved to two feet by 1966. Thirty-eight missions, with durations of one to eight days, were part of the KH-7 program, of which 34 were successful and 30 provided usable imagery. Key targets for the KH-7 were Soviet and Chinese ICBM complexes, radar systems, and global hot spots. The system returned 19,000 photographic frames.

The KH-9 system was a lower resolution mapping (frame) system that operated from March 1973 to October 1980. Twelve KH-9 missions were flown for durations spanning 42 to 119 days. The initial resolution of KH-9 images was 30 feet on the ground, which improved to about 20 feet in later missions. The KH-9's camera returned 29,000 image frames. The KH-9 was designed to support foreign and domestic mapping requirements and global geodetic positioning. It provided geodetic data, including precise geopositioning, elevation, and other information to its biggest users, such as the Defense Mapping Agency (a predecessor to NIMA), thereby establishing accurate point locations for air, sea, and ground operations, as well as tactical and strategic weapons system planning. Another major user of the KH-9 system was the U.S. Geological Survey. Both the KH-7 and KH-9 were replaced when superior technology became available.

Some sample images from the release were shown to conference attendees. From the KH-7 collection, attendees were shown images of Washington, D.C., (taken February 19, 1966) and the Dolon Airfield in Kazakhstan (taken April 20, 1966), which was then a major Soviet long-range aviation facility. The capability of the KH-9 system was demonstrated by a photograph of the Logan and Walsh Glaciers from the Yukon Territory in Canada, taken August 19, 1977. Other sample images were provided on a CD-ROM given to attendees.

After opening remarks by UMUC President Gerald Heeger, J. Robert Kerrey, former U.S. Senator and current president of New School University, delivered the keynote address, "Reflections on the Significance of the Day." While in Congress, Sen. Kerrey was instrumental in creating NIMA, which absorbed previous government imaging agencies, and in securing $2 million for declassification efforts through "Imagery for Citizens" funding. Kerrey remarked that the release was a victory for both researchers and for average citizens, calling it "an exciting moment in history." Kerrey also challenged NIMA administrators to "take the risk of declassifying even more images to the public." Kerrey stated his belief that public dissemination of imagery would help citizens understand and participate in foreign policy decisions. While acknowledging that secrecy has a role, he argued, "there are times when secrecy conspires with fear and ignorance to create bad decision making." Although NIMA currently has no ongoing efforts to declassify imagery from other national satellite imaging systems, Kerrey urged them to continue, saying their actions would make the world "more peaceful and more just." </>

In the morning session, John Newman, professor of history at UMUC and former intelligence analyst, reflected on what the newly released imaging might mean for scholars of 20th-century foreign policy. Newman cited the U.S. entry to the Vietnam War as a study that may be enlightened by KH-7 imagery. What exactly did U.S. decision makers know about North Vietnamese troop location and strength? Did KH-7 images reveal anything about the Sino-Soviet split, and did that knowledge or lack thereof affect U.S. decision making regarding Vietnam? Newman hoped that the imagery would answer many questions about Communist forces in Vietnam that he felt have not been adequately addressed in the current historiography. By knowing what images the policymakers possessed, Newman argued, historians would be better able to examine the rationale for the decisions made. He also praised NIMA for its declassification program, and stating that such programs are important to a free and open society, he expressed the hope that NIMA would continue to release as many images as possible to the public.

Mary E. Clutter and Bruce Hayden, representatives of the National Science Foundation, argued that the images could be used to track ecological developments such as shoreline movement, deforestation, urban development, and migration of plant species.

The afternoon of the conference featured two panel discussions. The first panel, "Making This Happen," was chaired by Deane Allen, chief historian of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Panel members included the former defense and intelligence professionals who were responsible for putting the KH-7 and KH-9 systems into operation. They spoke at length about the advantages of the KH-7 and KH-9 over the previous image-acquisition systems in the CORONA program. They also addressed some of the drawbacks of the two systems, specifically observing that the best value of satellite imagery for policymakers was in aggregate and in long-term conflicts. They concluded that for both past intelligence professionals and present historians, the satellites images served best to observe large-scale conflicts over time, as it was very difficult to get a satellite in position to observe a crisis that erupted and resolved quickly.

In the second panel, "Imagery and Today's Scholarship," scholars from the United States Geological Survey, the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University addressed the ramifications the release of satellite imagery might have on their respective fields. Joshua Handler, the representative from the Woodrow Wilson School, presented a cautionary tale for those who may want to use declassified satellite images in their work. Handler, a scholar of the domestic politics of strategic nuclear arms control, was in Russia studying Soviet nuclear weapons storage facilities, he said, when Russian security confiscated the collection of declassified CORONA and U-2 photography he was using. Handler cautioned that what is declassified in the United States may still be classified in other countries, and scholars should proceed cautiously. Other panel members made similar comments, one noting that the reproduction of declassified materials in scholarly work could lead to restrictions on the countries in which it may be published. The great potential for interdisciplinary collaboration that usage of the KH-7 and KH-9 images presented was recognized by the panelists and the audience. One professor of geology commented that while he can interpret the images, he would need a historian to put them in an understandable context, and hoped specifically that the KH-7 and KH-9 release would lead to collaborative research.

The National Archives and Records Administration has archived the original imagery and will make duplicates available to the general public. The United States Geological Survey's EROS Data Center (EDC) in Sioux Falls, SD also has a duplicate set of the images. Researchers can view these images—as well as those that have been declassified previously—at the EDC web site (http://earthexplorer.usgs.gov) and order copies.

—David Darlington is an assistant editor of Perspectives.