from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2011, Issue No. 20
February 28, 2011

Secrecy News Blog:


Millions of feet of film of historical imagery from intelligence satellites may be declassified this year, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) said.

"The NGA is anticipating the potential declassification of significant amounts of film-based imagery... in 2011," according to an NGA announcement that solicited contractor interest in converting the declassified film into digital format. It was published in Federal Business Opportunities on February 14, 2011. A copy is posted here:

For planning purposes, the NGA told potential contractors to assume the need to digitize "approximately 4 million linear feet of film up to approximately 7 inches in width." The imagery is "stored on 500 foot spools, with many frames up to several feet in length." A nominal start date of October 1, 2011 was specified for the digitization project.

The NGA announcement also suggested that the winning contractor would "retain rights to distribute declassified imagery and recoup investment, for a specified period of time (negotiable)." This would be problematic if it implied that the contractor had exclusive access to the declassified film and could prevent others from digitizing selected portions of it.

The declassification of historical intelligence satellite imagery has been largely dormant for many years. President Clinton's 1995 executive order 12951 promised a periodic review of classified imagery "with the objective of making available to the public as much imagery as possible consistent with the interests of national defense and foreign policy." In particular, a review of obsolete film-return systems, such as the KH-8 GAMBIT and the KH-9 HEXAGON, was to be completed within five years. This was not done, or produced no results if it was done.

During her confirmation process to become Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Stephanie O'Sullivan recently noted the existence of an ODNI effort that started last year "to reinvigorate the declassification of imagery for public release." ("Nomination Sheds New Light on Intel Policy," Secrecy News, February 22, 2011).


The awkwardness of using the Espionage Act to penalize the unauthorized disclosure of classified information to the press is again becoming apparent in the case of Jeffrey A. Sterling, a former CIA officer who was indicted last December in one of the several leak cases that are now underway.

An initial difficulty for the prosecution is that the espionage statute cited against Mr. Sterling (18 USC 793) concerns the protection of "national defense information." It does not mention "classified information." The two terms are not synonymous.

"The fact that the information at issue may be classified is not conclusive and is insufficient to carry the [prosecution's] burden of proving [unauthorized disclosure of] 'national defense information'," the defense argued in one of a remarkably robust series of motions for dismissal that were filed last week on behalf of Mr. Sterling.

In other words, it is quite possible for information to be classified without it qualifying as "national defense information" for purposes of the Espionage Act. Classified diplomatic or law enforcement information, for example, would generally be outside the scope of "national defense information," as would some types of classified intelligence information. (On the other hand, it is also conceivable that some information that is formally unclassified could nevertheless be "national defense information" which is protected by the statute.)

Although the text of the Indictment of Mr. Sterling labels the Counts against him as "Unauthorized Disclosure of Classified Information," "Unauthorized Retention of Classified Information," and so forth, those actions are not what the statute prohibits, the defense accurately noted:

"A brief review of cases brought under 18 USC 793 demonstrates that prosecution for the alleged oral disclosure of 'national defense information' is not common which may be why the Indictment incorrectly lists these charges as classified information disclosures."

Furthermore, the defense said it "reserves the right to challenge the constitutionality of 18 USC 793 as applied in this case." But previous challenges to the constitutionality of the statute have not been successful.

The defense motion for a "bill of particulars" also revealed that the government had gathered telephone, credit card and bank records of New York Times reporter James Risen, the presumed recipient of Mr. Sterling's alleged disclosures. This was first reported by Josh Gerstein in "Feds spy on reporter in leak probe," Politico, February 25.


In the vast literature of intelligence-related memoirs, the new book "Long Strange Journey" by Patrick G. Eddington stands out in several ways.

Eddington entered the intelligence arena as an imagery analyst for the CIA's National Photographic Intelligence Center. Imagery analysis is a predominately technical activity and is not normally considered a hotbed of intrigue or controversy. Nor has it been widely featured in the intelligence "literature of discontent." Eddington provides an introduction to the world of light tables, mensuration and the now-defunct world of the NPIC analyst.

Then Eddington himself defies easy stereotyping. As an Army veteran, a political conservative, and a person of faith, he might have been voted least likely to rock the boat and to become a whistleblower. But that's what he did.

Shaken by an encounter with a Gulf War veteran suffering from an exposure to some unidentified toxin, he began a personal investigation at CIA into what would soon become known as Gulf War Syndrome, a collection of symptoms that afflicted thousands of soldiers. In the face of official denials of the presence of chemical or biological agents in the Iraq of Desert Storm, Eddington audaciously undertook his own "clandestine" or "covert" search of classified intelligence databases in an attempt to discover the truth.

"I aggressively gathered all the cable traffic and reporting on Iraqi NBC [nuclear, biological and chemical] operations before, during, and after the war," he writes. "My cipher-lock door was frequently closed during these clandestine electronic fishing expeditions. If someone knocked, it gave me just enough time to lock my computer screen and prevent anyone 'uncleared' from inadvertently learning of my Gulf War-related inquiry."

The second half of the book is a gripping, slow-motion train wreck of a story, as Eddington attempts to air his newly discovered findings to his superiors at CIA, to military officials and to congressional overseers. They are mostly unresponsive, and frequently hostile. Eddington is eventually ostracized, and feels driven to leave the intelligence community in disgust. This is Eddington's account, and the thought processes of his bosses, colleagues and adversaries that led them to reject or downplay his efforts are not clearly articulated here. Yet over time, his core allegations concerning the exposure of American service personnel in Iraq to chemical agents have been ratified and broadly accepted.

"There is no small irony in the fact that Agency officials who spent years claiming no chemical weapons were deployed in the first Gulf War were later forced to recant those claims, only to go on to erroneously claim that Saddam retained WMD stocks when none in fact existed," he wrote. "The mindset that produced both failed estimates was the same -- a refusal to reevaluate a long-held institutional position in the face of contravening evidence."

From Eddington's point of view, he was "forced out by a system that values consensus over creativity, conformity over conscience."

This impassioned first-person account raises challenging questions that go beyond the particulars of Eddington's story. How can government organizations and especially intelligence agencies best be organized to nurture disparate and politically inconvenient views? What are the appropriate limits of dissent within a government organization? How can congressional oversight of intelligence be invigorated? How can intelligence and national security whistleblowers be protected?

See "Long Strange Journey: An Intelligence Memoir" by Patrick G. Eddington, February 2011:

See also the author's website here:


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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