from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2012, Issue No. 108
October 22, 2012

Secrecy News Blog:


A massive quantity of historical intelligence satellite imagery from the KH-9 HEXAGON program is being declassified and will be made public in a series of releases that are scheduled over the coming year, intelligence community officials say.

Declassification of intelligence satellite imagery languished for years after President Clinton ordered the release of product from the Corona, Argon and Lanyard missions in the 1995 executive order 12951. Although the Clinton order also required the periodic review of imagery from other missions, that requirement was effectively ignored by intelligence agencies and neglected by congressional oversight.

But in a May 2010 memorandum Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair ordered the "re-establishment" of the declassification review of intelligence imagery -- though it had never been officially disestablished -- with a particular focus on imagery from satellite systems that were deemed obsolete.

In January 2011, DNI James R. Clapper formally declared that the KH-9 HEXAGON program was obsolete, and that declassification review of all program imagery should therefore commence. KH-9 HEXAGON was operational from 1971 to 1984.

"The process to declassify imagery pursuant to EO 12951 began shortly after DNI Blair's May 26, 2010 memorandum and has been ongoing, in earnest, with the goal of releasing as much imagery as possible to the public, consistent with national security," said Michael G. Birmingham of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. "Accordingly, The KH-9/HEXAGON system was declared obsolete in January 2011 and a phased declassification of its imagery has ensued."

More than two years after the Blair memorandum, however, next to nothing has yet been made public.

"The notable challenges to this effort are the sheer volume of imagery and the logistics involved in cataloging the imagery and moving it to archive," Mr. Birmingham told Secrecy News.

"For context, and to grasp the scope of the project, the KH-9/HEXAGON system provided coverage over hundreds of millions of square miles of territory during its 19 successful missions spanning 1971-1984. It is a daunting issue to address declassification of the program specifics associated with an obsolete system such as the KH-9, which involves the declassification of huge volumes of intelligence information gathered on thousands of targets worldwide during a 13 year time period."

Daunting or not, the large bulk of the KH-9 imagery is expected to be released, with only perhaps 5% or so remaining classified.

"There is a schedule of multiple deliveries with final delivery of imagery scheduled for September 2013," Mr. Birmingham said.

Within the intelligence community, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is the executive agent for imagery declassification. NGA public affairs did not respond to questions about its declassification program.


We were sad to learn that Professor Anna K. Nelson, a tenacious and effective advocate for improved public access to national security records, passed away last month.

For decades, Prof. Nelson argued for improved declassification practices in almost every venue imaginable, from congressional hearings to the most obscure and transient advisory bodies. As a professor of history at American University, she insisted that government records were public property and that access to such records was one of the foundations of good citizenship.

Among many other posts, she served as a presidentially-appointed member of the JFK Assassination Records Review Board, which was tasked to oversee the declassification of records concerning the assassination of President Kennedy. Because of the perseverance of Dr. Nelson and her colleagues, that Board was uniquely productive in overcoming longstanding barriers to declassification, particularly those pertaining to intelligence agency records.

Nevertheless, she was habitually pessimistic about the prospects for meaningful secrecy reform.

"Given past performance, it is highly unrealistic to assume that agencies, particularly Defense and the CIA, will be completely forthcoming or that the Archives will ever question agency decisions," she wrote in a 2000 letter to Congress. "Agency declassification of selected, heavily redacted records will not serve the public interest. It will only breed more suspicion."

Prof. Nelson also spoke out in defense of robust investigative reporting on national security matters. In 2008, for example, she submitted a declaration of behalf of New York Times reporter James Risen, arguing that a grand jury subpoena against him in the pending leak case against former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling should be quashed.

"If Mr. Risen and other investigative journalists are unable to report effectively on matters of intelligence, the historical record will be incomplete, if not erroneous," Dr. Nelson wrote.

"Although our own books and articles are stuffed with footnotes, we historians understand that investigative journalists, as observers of the present, must protect their sources. If they do not, the American people will never learn about corruption, incompetence, excessive government secrecy, flaws in homeland security, or disastrous decisions made by policy makers who are advised by their intelligence chiefs," she wrote. "We must depend upon journalists and journalists must be permitted to depend upon confidential sources."


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

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