Half a dozen people gathered in the Washington, D.C., offices of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies on Thursday morning to gawk at senior research associate Dave Schmerler’s monitor. What stared back wasn’t a kitten or puppy video, but it was instantly recognizable to most of us: a circular launch pad at a space facility in Semnan, Iran, seen from above.
For about a week, Dave had been watching launch preparations at Semnan through daily three-meter resolution commercial satellite pictures from Planet in California. What made Thursday’s shot different was the massive column of black smoke rising from the center of the discolored pad—the unmistakable signs of a fire or explosion. The launch had failed.
That was impressive, but it was nothing much compared to Friday afternoon. That’s when the Tweeter-in-Chief chose to share another version with the world:
Donald Trump’s taunt hints at sabotage, raising the possibility that the United States or another nation might have just undertaken a stealthy “left of launch” operation against a space program it considers indistinguishable from ballistic missile development. That’s childish at best, an indiscretion at worst.
More surprising, and far more consequential, is the accompanying photograph. Its resolution is well beyond that of any commercially available image, maybe just a few centimeters per pixel, revealing an extraordinary level of detail. Its exceptional quality and informative annotations (“damaged propellant burner trailer”) strongly suggest that the President of the United States has just tweeted out a sensitive imagery intelligence (IMINT) product.
A closer look at the picture tends to confirm that impression. It’s a photograph of a document, with visible distortion around the edges. What looks like glare from a light fixture can be seen near the center, and the shadow of the person taking the picture looms over the scene. A black rectangle has been added to the upper left corner, apparently to obscure classification markings.
Older IMINT is routinely declassified decades after the fact, and current IMINT occasionally is released for purposes of public diplomacy. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s infamous February 2003 presentation at the United Nations comes to mind; so does the intelligence community’s April 2008 briefing on Syria’s secret nuclear reactor. These decisions are clearly made with some care, to avoid disclosing too much about the precise abilities of America’s eyes in the sky.
There’s no hint of any such deliberative process at work here. Everything about this episode speaks of a reckless spontaneity. According to CNBC, the image in question appeared in an intelligence briefing Friday morning:
The president’s public schedule indicates that he was to receive his daily intelligence briefing at 11:30 a.m., to be followed by lunch with the secretary of state at 12:30 p.m. The tweet went out at 1:44 p.m.
Rather than ask the intelligence community for a releasable version, it appears that Trump or a staff member took a snapshot of the President’s Daily Brief and tweeted it out, just like that. He could have used one of the commercial images of the event, already in circulation online, or no picture at all. Instead, he chose to tweet from his intelligence briefing.
One might ask how much it really matters, since Iran’s government already understands that other countries are watching closely. What’s more, like most other countries active in space, Iran isn’t trying to hide its launch activities; work at Semnan takes place in the open, just as one would expect for a civil space program.
Unfortunately, the consequences of tweeting this image reach far beyond Semnan; they are global. Now it’s readily apparent to every country with something to hide from view how much the U.S. intelligence community can see. We should expect them to respond accordingly.
This sort of carelessness isn’t new for Trump, of course. In May 2017, he bragged to Russian officials in the Oval Office that he was in possession of exquisite intelligence about the Islamic State, thereby jeopardizing a partner country’s human source. As shocking as that act was, it broke no law. The entire classification system is a function of presidential authority.
The same point applies to Friday’s tweet. If Donald Trump wants to disclose every secret that crosses his desk to the Russian ambassador, or to the entire world via Twitter, he may do so. But there is a price for his carelessness: destroying the effectiveness of the U.S. intelligence apparatus.