from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2013, Issue No. 40
April 22, 2013

Secrecy News Blog:


An enormous volume of photographic imagery from the KH-9 HEXAGON intelligence satellites was quietly declassified in January and will be transferred to the National Archives later this year for subsequent public release.

The KH-9 satellites operated between 1971 and 1984. The imagery they generated should be of historical interest with respect to a wide range of late Cold War intelligence targets but is also expected to support current scientific research on climate change and related fields of inquiry.

The film-based KH-9 satellites were officially declared "obsolete" by the Director of National Intelligence in 2011. The KH-9 imagery was nominally approved for declassification in February 2012, and then it was finally declassified in fact this year.

ODNI spokesman Michael Birmingham said that approximately 97 percent of the satellite imagery that was collected from the 19 successful KH-9 missions was formally declassified by DNI James R. Clapper on January 11, 2013.

"The small amount of imagery exempted from this declassification decision will be removed prior to its accession to the National Archives (NARA) and will remain classified pursuant to statute and national security interests, and reviewed periodically to determine if additional declassification is warranted," Mr. Birmingham said last week.

The imagery is being transferred to NARA in stages, with final delivery scheduled for September 2013, he said.

The transfer is being implemented pursuant to a November 2012 Memorandum of Agreement between the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the National Archives, under which the Archives is "responsible for providing public access to the declassified imagery."

Reishia R. Kelsey of NGA public affairs confirmed that the imagery "will be made available to the public following its accession to NARA" later this year.

The National Archives was not prepared last week to set a precise date for public release. But an Archives official said that "NARA intends to make these records available to the public at our research room in College Park, MD as soon as possible following transfer."

If successfully executed, the release of the KH-9 imagery will constitute a breakthrough in the declassification and disclosure of national security information. It will be one of several discrete but momentous shifts in secrecy policy during the Obama Administration that have often gone unrecognized or unappreciated. Though these declassification actions took years or decades to accomplish, they have been downplayed by the White House itself, which has seemed curiously ambivalent about them. They include the public disclosure of the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, the routine publication of the annual intelligence budget request, the release of the Office of Legal Counsel "torture memos," the declassification of the KH-9 satellite itself, and others.

The KH-9 imagery is being processed for public release pursuant to the 1995 Executive Order 12951 on "Release of Imagery Acquired by Space-based National Intelligence Reconnaissance Systems." That order had been effectively dormant since the Clinton Administration, when the last major release of intelligence satellite imagery (from the CORONA, ARGON and LANYARD missions) took place.

The declassification of the KH-9 imagery is a massive undertaking, Mr. Birmingham of ODNI said last year.

"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," he said. "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."


Just as law enforcement relied upon surveillance cameras and personal photography to enable the prompt identification of the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing, U.S. armed forces increasingly look to the collection of still and motion imagery to support military operations.

Combat camera (COMCAM) capabilities support "operational planning, public affairs, information operations, mission assessment, forensic, legal, intelligence and other requirements during crises, contingencies, and exercises around the globe," according to newly updated military doctrine.

COMCAM personnel are "highly trained visual information professionals prepared to deploy to the most austere operational environments at a moment's notice."

COMCAM units "are adaptive and provide fully qualified and equipped personnel to support sustained day or night operations" in-flight, on the ground or undersea, as needed.

"Effectively employed COMCAM assets at the tactical level can potentially achieve national, theater strategic, and operational level objectives in a manner that lessens the requirement for combat in many situations," the new doctrine says. "Their products can counter adversary misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda and help commanders gain situational awareness on operations in a way written or verbal reports cannot."

"The products can also provide historical documentation, public information, or an evidentiary foundation... for forensic documentation of evidence and legal proceedings. They can provide intelligence documentation to include imagery for facial recognition and key leader engagements, and support special reconnaissance."

The newly issued COMCAM doctrine supersedes previous guidance from 2007. See Combat Camera: Multi-Service Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Combat Camera (COMCAM) Operations, April 2013.


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

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