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While the NRO may declassify some satellite programs as part of the commemoration of its 50th anniversary, many others will remain behind a veil of secrecy.

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<< page 1: what will probably be declassified

What probably won’t be declassified


The film-return satellites like GAMBIT and HEXAGON were joined in late 1976 by a new satellite that beamed its images to Earth, meaning that an event in the Soviet Union could be seen by the president in near real-time. Whereas people in the know describe HEXAGON as the most complicated satellite ever launched, they considered KENNAN to be incredibly simple by comparison. It had few moving parts and performed all its wizardry with electronics. Someone who has seen it described it as looking much like the Hubble Space Telescope, but with a shorter instrument section at the rear. It was essentially a big tube with a large mirror inside, capable of photographing objects on the ground as small as a softball.

The argument against declassifying anything—which will almost certainly prevail—is that variants of the original KH-11 are still flying today.

The KENNAN was compromised only a few years after its debut when a spy sold a technical manual with information on the satellite to the Soviet Union. In the 1990s the NRO acknowledged that it used “near-real-time” satellites for reconnaissance and gradually acknowledged that this had started with the launch of the first KH-11 in 1976 (the name “KENNAN” remains classified). The technology used in the KH-11 is nowhere near as sophisticated as that available in a reasonably good cellphone camera, and a dozen other countries have satellites in orbit that use technology better than employed by the original version of this satellite—although they are not as big and therefore don’t produce images of the same high resolution.

Arguments in favor of declassification:
Declassifying some information on this satellite system would finally allow the intelligence community to explain, and take credit for, its role in the early development of electronic imaging technology. That cellphone camera that’s so impressive germinated from a zygote nurtured by decades of investment in the technology by the NRO, CIA, and other government agencies.

Arguments against declassification:
The argument against declassifying anything—which will almost certainly prevail—is that variants of the original KH-11 are still flying today. Although they may retain the same general shape as the original, their electronic innards and particularly their imaging sensors probably bear little relationship to those produced 35 years ago (in fact, it’s quite possible that they are less sophisticated than commercially available technologies—the intelligence community cannot invest the kind of money into R&D that the world’s consumer electronics industry can).

Bottom line: a bad bet for declassification.

The Air Force Ferrets

In 1998 the NRO declassified the existence of the first signals intelligence satellite. Named GRAB, it was built by the Naval Research Laboratory. Several years later they revealed the existence of the follow-on program named POPPY. Although the existence of these satellites was revealed, only rudimentary data on them was released and they still remain enigmatic.

The existence of GRAB and POPPY made another series of electronic signals intelligence satellites even more head-scratching. Throughout the 1960s the Air Force had launched several series of satellites into low Earth orbit, usually tossing them off the backs of GAMBIT (and later, HEXAGON) satellites, or occasionally launching larger versions by themselves. The purpose of these satellites was apparently to monitor Soviet radars and possibly also communications, and they were commonly referred to as “ferret” satellites because of their role in ferreting-out signals. Whereas GRAB had its origins in the Navy, these other satellites were apparently initiated by the Air Force, but how they differed from GRAB and POPPY remains unknown. The NRO has acknowledged the existence of these satellites, but released no details on them. Some variants were launched as late as the 1980s.

Decisions about what to keep classified do not have to be carefully argued and logical; it is enough that some people in charge think that a program that has been classified for over 40 years should stay classified, even if it never flew.

Arguments in favor of declassification:
These satellites operated at the same time as POPPY, which was last launched in the early 1970s, and so the technology is similarly long obsolete. Another argument in favor of declassification is that they were developed largely by the Air Force, and many Air Force space veterans have legitimately complained that the CIA and the Navy have gotten too much credit for space intelligence successes. The primary reason for anybody in the NRO to actually want to declassify a historical system is so that people can finally take credit for their work. Several years ago a researcher was told that declassification was underway.

Arguments against declassification:
An argument against their declassification is that the intelligence community really dislikes discussing signals intelligence collection, even half a century ago. Variants of these satellites flew into the 1980s, and may have operated for a relatively long time after that. Another argument against declassification is that at least some of these satellites, supposedly the larger ones known as the “heavy ferrets,” were used to intercept communications, something that the intelligence community really hates discussing.

Bottom line: a bad bet for declassification.

The Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL)

During the early 1960s the Air Force really wanted to launch its pilots into space. But the service had a thorny problem: senior civilian Pentagon leaders (like Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara) insisted that they find something useful for the military astronauts to do. In 1963 the Air Force started the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program and selected a group of astronauts to fly aboard it. MOL was essentially a big pressurized tube filled with experiments with a two-person Gemini spacecraft on top, and it would have been launched by a powerful Titan III rocket.

MOL had a difficult time gaining momentum for a year or two. Eventually—and apparently, because this story remains largely classified—the National Reconnaissance Office signed on and MOL was equipped with a powerful camera to take very high resolution photographs of the ground. In fact, one of the disputes about MOL within the intelligence community was that MOL’s photographs would be better than anybody needed. MOL suffered from the typical drawback of any human spacecraft: all the equipment needed to keep people alive in orbit added to cost and complexity. Eventually MOL’s designers were told to make the craft capable of operating unmanned as well as manned, leading to the question of why they should include humans in the first place. MOL then ran into budgetary conflict with the KH-9 HEXAGON. Richard Nixon canceled MOL in summer of 1969. Several MOL astronaut trainees later went to fly on the Space Shuttle: Robert Crippen, Richard Truly, Gordon Fullerton, and Robert Overmyer.

Although the MOL program is known to have been assigned a name, DORIAN, within the NRO’s BYEMAN classification system and a KH designation (KH-10), the NRO does not acknowledge any role in the MOL program, adopting a legal policy where it refuses to confirm or deny that it has any records concerning MOL. This is a more severe approach than the NRO has taken towards other satellites like the GAMBIT and HEXAGON, although presumably the same approach it takes towards a host of other still-classified intelligence satellites. Why the NRO has adopted this policy is unknown, but decisions about what to keep classified do not have to be carefully argued and logical; it is enough that some people in charge think that a program that has been classified for over 40 years should stay classified, even if it never flew.

Arguments in favor of declassification:
MOL never flew. Its technology was the same vintage as the KH-9 HEXAGON. We long ago learned that humans don’t have a military mission in space. The military officers selected for this program—whose names have been known for decades—could finally be acknowledged for their training, even if they never got to fly on MOL.

Arguments against declassification:
There may be little desire within the community to declassify a program that did not produce anything. It is easier and cheaper to leave a program classified than to actually pay people to review all the paperwork and release it to the public. Very few people in the intelligence community see value in declassifying any information, no matter how old, and won’t do it until forced. One of the downsides of this fact is that it can result in a declassified record of successes and a classified record of failures.

Bottom line: a bad bet for declassification.

The Satellite Data System (SDS)

Few people realize that satellite intelligence collection is essentially a tripod: imagery collection, signals collection, and communications. All that data gathered from those big expensive satellites has to be moved to the people who can use it. When the KH-11 started flying in the 1970s it was accompanied by some high-flying communications satellites with the mission of relaying the imagery to the ground, making it possible for a satellite flying low over one side of the Earth to get its images back to the other side of the Earth. The Satellite Data System, or SDS, satellites performed this task. The first generation of these satellites was based upon a commercial satellite bus and operated into the 1980s. They were eventually replaced by bigger and more powerful satellites.

One gaping hole in the origin story is the role of the intelligence community in shaping the shuttle.

Arguments in favor of declassification:
In the past the NRO has allowed its imagery experts to reveal their involvement in some historically important programs. It has only allowed a few of its signals intelligence experts to reveal their involvement. The communications community has received much less credit. Declassifying the first SDS would allow this neglected community to take a bow.

Arguments against declassification:
There is not really a product to declassify, since these satellites simply pushed data through a pipeline. These programs are tied to other satellite systems that are likely to remain classified. Plus, virtually nobody outside of the field of communications considers comsats to be sexy.

Bottom line: a bad bet for declassification.

NRO involvement in the shuttle program

The shuttle will make its last flight in 2011. When that happens there will be numerous recollections on “what it all means” and undoubtedly the beginning of history conferences on the origins and evolution of the shuttle and its legacy. One gaping hole in the origin story is the role of the intelligence community in shaping the shuttle. There is anecdotal evidence that the shuttle’s design was driven by the NRO’s need to launch large payloads—essentially signals intelligence satellites—into geosynchronous orbit. But the NRO also experienced some internal conflict over converting its satellites to launch on what some intelligence community officials considered a flying turkey.

Arguments in favor of declassification:
Releasing at least some more information would help shed light on one of the major civil space policy decisions of the last half-century, the decision to build the space shuttle.

Arguments against declassification:
Shuttle is tied up with a lot of other NRO programs that clearly nobody wants to talk about. Plus, it’s a sore spot for people who fought putting NRO payloads on the shuttle and lost, only to be vindicated when the shuttle never lived up to its promises. Nobody likes to declassify failures.

Bottom line: a bad bet for declassification.

Not a snowball’s chance in Hell

The NRO has flown a lot of other satellite types over the years, and some bare bones information has leaked out on these programs. They include the CANYON high-altitude communications intercept satellites, the RHYOLITE satellites used to monitor Soviet missile tests, and the White Cloud satellites used to surveil the oceans for Soviet ships. Many of these programs did not start entering into service until the late 1960s and mid-1970s, but their electronics systems are ancient and even countries like India now commercially market a broad range of signals intelligence systemsM. However, their progenitors remain in use today, and there may be operational details about how they gather intelligence that the intelligence community believes are not known and should not be known by others. Another satellite whose existence was quietly declassified last year, but that probably won’t be declassified in any other way, is the 1964 QUILL radar satellite. (See “Radar love: the tortured history of American space radar programs,” The Space Review, January 22, 2007, and “Flight of a feather: the QUILL radar satellite,” The Space Review, May 24, 2010.) Other countries have since developed radar satellites, but the intelligence community still remains touchy about this subject.

Based upon anecdotal evidence so far, it seems to be that intelligence satellites will not be declassified in any way until at least two or three decades after their termination, and not unless they are significantly obsolete. Although these other systems were built in the age before the personal computer, they probably won’t see the light of day for another two or three decades. You can stop holding your breath.