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KH-7 image
Images taken by the KH-7 reconnaissance satellites have already been declassified; the program itself could be declassified in the near future by the NRO. (courtesy J. Richelson)

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Way back in 1997, the then director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) paid a courtesy visit to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. He was there to talk to a few of the museum’s curators about the impending donation of a couple of major artifacts. One of them was a massive KH-9 HEXAGON satellite, over 16 meters (53 feet) long and 3 meters (10 feet) in diameter. Another was a KH-8 GAMBIT satellite, over 12 meters (40 feet) long and 1.5 meters (5 feet) in diameter. Both had been workhorse spy satellites of the Cold War, and both were about to be declassified. The NRO director suggested that they could put the HEXAGON on display in a tent on the National Mall because the Greyhound-bus sized engineering mockup they had was too big to fit inside the museum. The curators balked at that; priceless artifacts such as intelligence satellites weren’t safe in Washington’s heat, humidity, and afternoon summer thunderstorms. But the curators did promise to reserve a space for the HEXAGON in the museum’s planned annex near Dulles International Airport, which also happens to be only a short drive from NRO Headquarters.

That has always been one of the impediments to declassification: a dozen people must all say “yes,” but all it takes is for one person to say “no” and the process grinds to a halt.

That was thirteen years ago, and neither satellite program was declassified. Ever since then those artifacts have sat in a secret warehouse, next to the Ark of the Covenant and the mummified alien corpses from Roswell. But according to the current director of the NRO at a speech he made before the Air Force Association’s annual convention on September 13, the NRO is seeking to declassify some information on secret satellite programs to coincide with the spysat agency’s 50th anniversary celebration, currently underway. What was he talking about? GAMBIT and HEXAGON, or something else?

The decision on what to declassify is certainly not one that can be made by the National Reconnaissance Office alone. NRO is subordinate to the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence, both of whom undoubtedly have to sign off on such a decision. The nation’s first reconnaissance satellite program, CORONA, was declassified with an executive order signed by President Bill Clinton back in 1995. Presidential approval is apparently no longer required, but the levels of bureaucracy are substantial, and the order probably has to cross the desks of many people at NRO, DoD, CIA, the Director of National Intelligence, and maybe the National Security Council. That has always been one of the impediments to declassification: a dozen people must all say “yes,” but all it takes is for one person to say “no” and the process grinds to a halt. Add to this the fact that the intelligence community is not a coherent entity, but a collection of security bureaucracies that all move in the same general direction, like a school of fish, and it’s amazing that anything gets declassified at all. In fact, the Russians have released more information about their satellite intelligence systems than the United States has.

So, when considering this subject it is vital to keep in mind the Golden Rule of Declassification: the easiest action is doing nothing.

Classified programs and the stuff that goes with them—documents, people, and even giant pieces of aluminum and beryllium like reconnaissance satellites—have a lot of inertia. If they’re over, history, then there is very little cost to the agencies that own them. After all, the paper is sitting in locked filing cabinets that don’t cost anything. It is easier, and cheaper, for a government bureaucracy to keep something already classified than it is to declassify it. Most government agencies only declassify things because they are forced to do so by a higher government agency, usually because of a vaguely defined democratic interest in such abstract concepts as “openness” and “accountability” and “history” that not everybody agrees upon.

Since the review doesn’t require the NRO to declassify anything now, the only reason it may happen is because they want to declassify it.

The intelligence community, however, is exempt from most requirements to declassify information after a certain number of years. As a result, they don’t have to declassify information, and they aren’t being forced to declassify information, and they usually don’t want to declassify information. They don’t want to declassify information for a variety of reasons. First of these is a legitimate view that the information should remain classified to protect the national security of the United States. But there are other reasons as well, including mistaken beliefs that some information could threaten security if released, as well as a totally understandable bureaucratic desire to not be bothered working on or paying for things that are not part of their core mission. If your job is building and flying satellites to protect the national security, then declassifying things doesn’t help you do your job, and it costs money.

But there may now be a little more pressure from above. In December 2009 President Obama signed an executive order that established a new requirement for all classifying agencies, including intelligence agencies, to perform a “Fundamental Classification Guidance Review.” The purpose of the review is “to identify classified information that no longer requires protection and can be declassified.” The first review must be completed within two years, and the goal is to deal with the very real problem of overclassification. Whether or not intelligence agencies will make significant progress at reducing the mountains of material that no longer needs to be classified (including much that never should have been classified in the first place) is an open question. So is the question of how this will be interpreted at the NRO.

Since the review doesn’t require the NRO to declassify anything now, the only reason it may happen is because they want to declassify it. The reason is that they’d like to throw an anniversary party, invite their friends and families, and show off some of their past accomplishments. NRO director Bruce Carlson did not offer any hints about what might be unveiled. What follows is speculation on what it might be, and what it probably won’t be.

What will probably be declassified


By far the most likely programs to be declassified are the KH-7 GAMBIT and the KH-9 HEXAGON, both of which were being planned for declassification in 1997. An upgraded GAMBIT known as the KH-8 might also be declassified, but its photos were reportedly so impressive that it seems virtually certain that at best only some of the technology, and maybe few or none of the KH-8 photographs, will be declassified.

The GAMBIT was started in 1960 as a direct result of the shootdown of Gary Powers’ U-2 over Siberia. According to some previously declassified information, Kodak was proposing a radical new high-resolution reconnaissance camera in spring 1960 when the U-2 was shot down and ended the collection of high-powered images of Soviet targets. (See “Ike’s gambit: The development and operations of the KH-7 and KH-8 spy satellites,” The Space Review, January 5, 2009.) The GAMBIT was given a green light and was developed by the Air Force under unique security safeguards. One of the primary missions of the KH-7 was to return images showing the presence of ballistic missiles at their launch sites in the Soviet Union indicating their readiness to fire, although the pictures would take several days to reach human eyes in Washington. The first KH-7 GAMBIT was launched in summer 1963 atop an Atlas rocket and soon began returning images of objects as small as about 1.2 meters (four feet) on a side. As the system improved, the KH-7 was able to photograph objects as small as 60 centimeters (two feet) on a side, roughly equivalent to today’s best commercially available imagery.

HEXAGON was a contentious program. In 1969 it was canceled, then revived, possibly resulting in the Manned Orbiting Laboratory getting canceled instead.

The photographs were taken on film that returned to Earth in a capsule similar to that developed for CORONA. Designers had abandoned plans to return the film over land in part because a reentering capsule would drop objects like parachute covers where they could hit people, or be recovered. Instead, the capsules deployed a parachute high over the Pacific Ocean and were then snagged out of the air by an airplane that carried them to Hawaii where they were transferred to a jet that flew them to the mainland and processing in a Kodak facility in Rochester, New York. In 1967, the KH-8 GAMBIT entered service with a higher-powered camera and more film. Eventually it also included two reentry vehicles. The NRO kept launching the KH-8 into the 1980s, even after the development of a system that could beam its images back to Earth. The reason is that the KH-8 was incredibly powerful, and on some occasions was able to take pictures of objects as small as 6.3 centimeters (two and a half inches) on a side — in other words, it could photograph a baseball from orbit. An image often used to illustrate the capabilities of the satellite showed blurry but recognizable sunbathers in bikinis on Malibu Beach in California.

This resolution has been matched but never surpassed by the successor satellites—the KH-11 and its descendants—and could be one reason the government might not want to release KH-8 photography. That is, KH-8 imagery would show what the NRO’s current systems can achieve.

The GAMBIT has already been partially declassified in several steps. In 2002 the government released most of the KH-7 imagery. How and why government officials decided to release that imagery remains an enigma, and the symposium held by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency in a Washington, DC suburb was a bit odd. For example, the name “GAMBIT” did not appear in any unclassified government documents, and government officials at the symposium would not mention the organization that built, managed, or launched the satellites, although they did mention that the former NRO director was sitting in the audience (he did not speak). But slowly over the next few years, like a bear sticking its nose outside its den for a sniff, the NRO gradually acknowledged some connections to the KH-7, first mentioning it in some documents, and then in 2008 releasing an official history of the program that was mostly blacked out. Earlier this year the NRO released a version of that history with even fewer deletions. All the important and really interesting stuff remains classified, but the latest release was a clear indication that NRO officials have become more comfortable with releasing information about a system that last operated over twenty-five years ago.

KH-9 drawing
Crude line drawings are the best publicly available now of the KH-9. (courtesy D. Day)

The HEXAGON was started in 1965 as a series of studies about how to photograph large sections of the Soviet Union at resolution high enough to also provide technical details about the objects it was seeing. The intelligence analysts determined that they really needed to see a lot of territory in each satellite pass, and they needed to spot objects about 45 centimeters (18 inches) on a side.

HEXAGON was a contentious program. In 1969 it was canceled, then revived, possibly resulting in the Manned Orbiting Laboratory getting canceled instead. The spacecraft was so big that it required a massive Titan III rocket to launch it. It was so big that people at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California reportedly took to calling it “the big bird”—a phrase that was later commonly used in magazine and newspaper articles about the launch of the satellites. One person who saw it in a clean room at Lockheed’s Sunnyvale, California plant said it looked like a locomotive engine. The first KH-9 HEXAGON was launched in 1971 and operated perfectly, something that must have been stunning to those who were involved in the program, because the KH-9 was immensely complicated. Those familiar with it have said that it was the most complex mechanical device ever launched into space. At the time that NASA was winding down the Apollo missions, HEXAGON was top-secret testimony that the intelligence community had wizard engineers every bit as good as those working on Apollo.

HEXAGON quickly replaced the CORONA, which had been doing yeoman duty since 1960. HEXAGON was initially equipped with four large reentry vehicles, which enabled it to stay in orbit much longer than CORONA or GAMBIT. According to a former C-130 Hercules pilot, these reentry vehicles could weigh up to 900 kilograms (2,000 pounds) each, and jerk the hell out of their planes when they snagged the falling capsules in mid-air. Because of their substantial film capacity and multiple reentry vehicles, far fewer HEXAGONs were launched, approximately one to two a year for the next decade and a half. Eventually a fifth reentry vehicle was added, and some of the craft were equipped with a powerful mapping camera.

Over the years the HEXAGON’s lifetime increased substantially, to the point where the satellites were spending nine months in orbit. The last HEXAGON was launched in 1986, but its Titan rocket blew up above the launch pad. According to one person who saw launch footage of the explosion, the fairing over the payload was blown off and one movie frame revealed the satellite underneath, a fraction of a second before it was consumed by the fireball. The wreckage was later buried at Groom Lake in the Nevada desert. (See “Death of a monster,” The Space Review, December 15, 2008.) This is not even the best story about the HEXAGON; there are others that are even more amazing, like something out of a spy thriller.

If you were to bet on what the NRO will declassify in the coming months, the GAMBIT and HEXAGON would be the best bets.

In 1997 there was an active effort by the NRO to declassify both GAMBIT and HEXAGON, because NRO officials believed their film-return technology was obsolete and could easily be revealed—in other words, nobody building a spy satellite in the late 1990s would benefit from anything they learned about these systems. (See “The invisible Big Bird: why there is no KH-9 spy satellite in the Smithsonian,” The Space Review, November 8, 2004.) But something happened in 1998 to bring that effort to a screeching halt in the halls of the intelligence community bureaucracy. Exactly what that was isn’t exactly clear, although some speculate that it was Indian efforts to hide their nuclear tests from prying American reconnaissance satellites. In 2002 HEXAGON’s mapping camera imagery was declassified and made publicly available, but its relatively low resolution meant that few people took much interest in it.

Like GAMBIT, the NRO has gradually acknowledged its connections to the KH-9 HEXAGON. The NRO released a heavily-censored official history of the KH-9 in 2008, and then a less-censored version earlier this year. Clearly, NRO officials believe that the outdated HEXAGON system is no longer as sensitive as it once was.

If you were to bet on what the NRO will declassify in the coming months, the GAMBIT and HEXAGON would be the best bets. But it is possible that the NRO might release some information on some other satellite programs.

page 2: what probably won’t be declassified >>