top of page





Photographic Intelligence and the US National Security State

I am looking at a page from a United States National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) document titled “The GAMBIT Story,” declassified in 2018, outlining the development and operation of the GAMBIT spy satellite system from the early 1960s to mid-1970s. A description sits above the thin, black outline of the blank rectangle in the center of the page: “The Dual-Platen Camera. This illustration shows simultaneous GAMBIT imagery of a Soviet communications satellite station using two different film emulsions to achieve specific S & T [Scientific & Technological] objectives.” The page is one of several in the “GAMBIT Intelligence Utility” section of the document containing redacted satellite photography of denied areas despite much information about the satellite being public.


The withholding of 50-year-old satellite photographs reveals the continued relevance of their content. The Soviet Union, the common target of historical reconnaissance satellite operations, has not existed for over 30 years, but the Russian Federation that succeeded it as regional hegemon is now an adversary of the US and NATO after a brief period of somewhat stable relations in the nineteen-nineties and early twenty-first century. In this context, it becomes evident why the “intelligence utility” of imagery captured by GAMBIT and other historical satellite systems remains. Redaction of the imagery is indicative of content relating to operations or technical capabilities that, although decades old, must be protected in the interests of the US national security state.


Page from The Gambit Story, National Reconnaissance Office, 1991.


As one would expect, photographs produced by current reconnaissance satellite systems also remain highly classified. The New York Times reported in September 2023 that US State Department contractor Abraham T. Lemma was charged with espionage for stealing satellite images pertaining to military operations in Africa and sharing them with Ethiopia (Goldman 2023)[1]. Lemma faces life in prison or the death penalty if found guilty. Although security protocols and threats of severe punishment make public dissemination of classified satellite images very unlikely, it is not impossible. On August 30, 2019, President Donald Trump posted on Twitter what appeared to be an oblique aerial photograph of a circular structure, which was accompanied by his words: “The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran. I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.” The “catastrophic accident” was an explosion at a rocket launch pad of the Imam Khomeini Space Launch Terminal in Iran. It was later revealed the image Trump posted was a high-resolution photograph of the failed rocket launch’s aftermath taken by USA 224, a KH-11 reconnaissance satellite operated by the NRO (Adams 2019)[2]. More accurately, what Trump shared was a photograph of a photograph. A reflection likely from a flash as well as the shadow of the photographer, perhaps Trump or an aide, can be seen in the image, indicating that the president was given a print of the satellite photograph during a classified intelligence briefing (Brumfiel 2022)[3].

Screenshot of Donald Trump’s tweet on August 30, 2019, showing a then-classified photograph taken by a KH-11 reconnaissance satellite.


The KH-11 satellite, built by Lockheed Martin, has been in operation since 1976 and it is public knowledge that the system’s electro-optical imaging (EOI) capabilities have been upgraded over the last several decades, but the technical specifications are classified. However, the Khomeini launch pad photograph reveals the KH-11 satellite that produced it is capable of an image resolution of about 10 cm/pixel (px), meaning that details as small as 10 cm can be identified. For comparison, high-resolution imagery from commercial satellites is around 25 cm/px. A US president has the power to declassify intelligence such as a spy satellite photograph, but it is unusual for this to be done without consulting intelligence agencies and reducing the resolution of the image. According to a former senior NRO official, the satellite image was classified “top secret,” and its release upset many in the US intelligence community (Dorfman 2021)[4].


Like the redacted GAMBIT photographs, Lemma’s espionage charges and the controversy over Trump sharing classified image intelligence on social media are testaments to the continued significance of satellite imaging in intelligence operations and geopolitical power. A summer 2010 edition of the NRO’s Space Sentinel internal publication declassified in 2017 states:


[Redacted] the benefit of high-resolution imagery. While we can solve many intelligence problems using medium-resolution imagery, we simply cannot resolve others without the benefit of high-resolution collection. NGA [National Geospatial Intelligence Agency] analysts and scientists team with NRO experts to achieve information dominance over current and potential adversaries that significantly contributes to our combat edge.


The desire for “information dominance” and a “combat edge” has only grown. In October 2023, the NRO announced a plan to “quadruple” its number of satellites over the next decade, which the agency claims will produce “10 times as many signals and images” (Hitchens 2023)[5]. Reuters reported in March 2024 that the NRO had signed a 1.8 billion-dollar contract with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which will provide “a powerful new spy system with hundreds of satellites bearing Earth-imaging capabilities than can operate as a swarm in low orbits” (Roulette and Taylor 2024)[6]. This network will allow for rapid, persistent imaging of locations and activities around the world. As an anonymous source quoted in the report says, “No one can hide” (Roulette and Taylor 2024)[7]. News of these developments comes against the backdrop of the US’s political-economic tensions and technological competition with China and Russia. While competition for dominance in space is not a new situation, the large scale of satellite network operations and enhancement of capabilities make space a critical site of current geopolitical conflict in which imaging plays a key role. To develop a deeper understanding of the expansion of photographic intelligence gathering during the early Cold War and its ongoing impact on global power dynamics, it is necessary to know the developments that led to the formation of the NRO and the nature of its relationships with intelligence agencies and branches of the military.

Page from declassified Summer 2010 issue of Space Sentinel, an internal National Reconnaissance Office document.

Overhead photoreconnaissance performed crucial tasks during the first two World Wars: mapping, determining bombing targets, and assessing damage. In response to the development of Soviet nuclear capabilities, President Eisenhower accepted a recommendation from a scientific advisory panel in 1954 to develop a new photoreconnaissance aircraft for gathering intelligence on Soviet military installations. Lockheed Corporation (now Lockheed Martin) submitted a glider-inspired design for a high-altitude aircraft, which became the U-2. The plane eluded Soviet radar by flying at altitudes up to 70,000 feet while its camera system captured high-resolution photographs. To continue gathering photographic intelligence as the Soviet Union’s radar tracking advanced, the Air Force and CIA began developing projects to succeed the U-2 in the late 1950s. A satellite system was pursued, which the Air Force had been exploring the possibility of since 1946. The U-2 continued to be effective in overhead reconnaissance missions outside the Soviet Union in the decades to come and at the time of writing, it is still in operation. The spy plane is scheduled for retirement in fiscal year 2026.


In 1958, Eisenhower approved a plan for a satellite program with the Air Force providing booster rockets and launch facilities, and the CIA managing project funding and acquiring the camera system (Haines 1997, 17)[8]. The result of this collaboration was the CORONA program, which publicly used the name DISCOVERER for cover as a scientific endeavor. The camera and satellite vehicle were developed by Itek Corporation working as a subcontractor for Lockheed. In terms of photographic intelligence, CORONA’s first successful operation was in August of 1960. After the film was recovered and developed, it was sent to the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) for analysis. The photographs were not as high-resolution as ones taken during U-2 flights, but the satellite camera photographed areas of the Soviet Union that the U-2 had been unable to reach. This mission “yielded more photographic area coverage than the total of all U-2 missions that had flown over the Soviet Union” (Central Intelligence Agency 1971, 39)[9]. However, a variety of technical and operational issues lingered and the degrees of success for subsequent CORONA missions were varied.


Unidentified CORONA launch.

Evan Hume, CORONA, 2020. This digital collage shows the first photograph from a reconnaissance satellite.


The development of CORONA was defined by a solid working relationship between Air Force and CIA officials, but the dynamic shifted as the satellite launches began. Without a clear organizational structure for the joint venture, tensions arose between the Air Force and CIA over control of the CORONA program. The solution put forward to end this competition was the formation of the NRO in 1961 as a “super secret, covert agency” overseeing reconnaissance operations (Haines 1997, 1)[10]. The NRO’s first Director, appointed by President Kennedy, was Under Secretary of the Air Force Joseph V. Charyk. However, it was not until 1965 that an effective governing structure was put into practice with the addition of an Executive Committee consisting of the Director of Central Intelligence, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and the President’s Science Advisor. Despite the turbulence of these formative years, the NRO’s satellites produced photography that was the most valued intelligence on Soviet military capabilities and operations. CORONA was succeeded by satellite programs such as GAMBIT, HEXAGON, and KENNEN (the original KH-11), which was the first US spy satellite to employ EOI for near-real-time collection of image intelligence. Although the NRO was unwittingly acknowledged in an October 1973 edition of the Congressional Record, its existence was not officially declassified until 1992, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. According to NRO Chief Historian Gerald K. Haines, “There is little doubt the NRO played a major role in the US ‘victory’ in the Cold War” (Haines 1997, 28)[11]. Time will tell if new and improved satellite systems are so effective as the US works against a multipolar world order.

The only public images without degraded resolution confirmed to be taken by a KH-11 satellite, other than the one posted by Trump, are two photographs of a Soviet nuclear aircraft carrier leaked by naval intelligence analyst Samuel Loring Morison in 1984 (Oberhaus 2019)[12]. These episodes of disclosure are instances of what I call “deep photography” rising to the surface. The term borrows from Peter Dale Scott’s concept of deep politics: “all those political practices and arrangements, deliberate or not, which are usually repressed rather than acknowledged” (Scott 2015, 12)[13]. Deep photography encompasses classified photographs captured as part of covert activities and any other photographs that government agencies keep secret. It is not only reconnaissance and surveillance photographs, but all sorts of completely and partially redacted photographs. This includes photographs with the identities of individuals obscured as well as photographs of government assets that are concealed. I encountered instances of the latter in 2021 when I received files in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request I submitted in 2010 asking for the contents of the CIA’s art collection. I was provided a list of modernist abstract paintings gifted to the agency by Washington, DC art collector Vincent Melzac, but photographs of the paintings were redacted. The only photographic documentation provided for a painting from the Melzac collection was a small, low fidelity copy of Gene Davis’s “Black Rhythm” (c. 1964). The (b)(4) redaction category listed as the reason for classification of the images is a protection for “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [that is] privileged or confidential” (US Department of Justice  2021)[14]. However, this is confusing because the names of the artists, artwork titles, and dates of creation are listed for each painting. The values of the paintings at the time Melzac first loaned them to CIA for exhibition are also listed. This demonstrates that deep photography is withheld for more than national security purposes and although a justification is provided, it is often unsatisfactory.

Some forms of deep photography have the potential to impact global power dynamics while others are withheld perhaps for more mundane reasons. Regardless of the origins and functions of classified, redacted photographs, they comprise a unique category of image. Photographs that are unseen and inaccessible at a time when a seemingly infinite stream of photographic images is at one’s fingertips are reminders not only of the deep political system’s regulation of knowledge and vision, but the clandestine governmental operations of the past and present.

Central Intelligence Agency document listing paintings owned by the CIA originally from the collection of Vincent Melzac. Obtained in 2021 from a FOIA request filed in 2010.

[1] Adam Goldman, “State Dept. Contractor is Accused of Stealing Satellite Imagery of Africa,” New York Times, September 21, 2023,
[2] Eric Adams, “Everything We Know About America’s Secret KH-11 Recon Satellites,” Popular Mechanics, September 6, 2019,
[3] Geoff Brumfiel, “Trump tweeted an image from a spy satellite, declassified document shows,” National Public Radio, November 18, 2022,
[4] Zach Dorfman, “More than two years after Trump tweeted a classified image of Iran, former officials are divided on fallout,” Yahoo News, December 17, 2021,
[5] Theresa Hitchens, “NRO plans 10-fold increase in imagery, signals intel output,” Breaking Defense, October 10, 2023,
[6] Joey Roulette and Marisa Taylor, “Elon Musk’s SpaceX is building spy satellite network for US intelligence agency, sources say,” Reuters, March 16, 2024,
[7] Joey Roulette and Marisa Taylor, “Elon Musk’s SpaceX is building spy satellite network for US intelligence agency, sources say.”
[8] Gerald K. Haines, National Reconnaissance Office, The National Reconnaissance Office: Its Origins, Creation, and Early Years, 1997, 17.
[9] Central Intelligence Agency, Corona: The First Photographic Reconnaissance Satellite, January 4, 1971, 39.
[10] Haines, The National Reconnaissance Office: Its Origins, Creation, and Early Years, 1.
[11] Haines, The National Reconnaissance Office: Its Origins, Creation, and Early Years, 28.
[12] Daniel Oberhaus, “Trump Tweeted a Sensitive Photo. Internet Sleuths Decoded it,” Wired, September 3, 2019,
[13] Peter Dale Scott, The American Deep State: Wall Street, Big Oil, and the Attack on American Democracy (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 12.
[14] US Department of Justice, Guide to Freedom of Information Act: Exemption 4, December 16, 2021,

How to cite
About the author


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page