I’m guessing this isn’t as bad as it looks, but you never know. Stay tuned.
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. pic.twitter.com/z0iDj2L0Y3
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2019
Where’d he get that photo? From the moment it appeared on Twitter, people who are practiced at studying satellite images began chattering about the remarkable clarity of it. CNBC asked around. Result:
A U.S. defense official told CNBC that the picture in Trump’s tweet, which appeared to be a snapshot of a physical copy of the satellite image, was included in a Friday intelligence briefing.
Experts told CNBC that the shot was likely never meant for public view…
“I’m not supposed to see stuff this good. He’s not supposed to share it. I’ve honestly never seen an image this sharp,” said Melissa Hanham, deputy director of the Open Nuclear Network and director of the Datayo Project at the One Earth Future Foundation.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said another image analyst to Business Insider. “I know that [the US military has] amazing capabilities, but I don’t know what this is.” You can see what a commercial satellite image of the site looks like by comparison at the top of this NPR story. It’s night and day.
How did he get a physical copy of the image uploaded to Twitter? Did he … pull out his smartphone and take a picture of a slide during a briefing? That seemed ludicrous to me, but a Twitter pal points out that you can see what appears to be a flash reflected in the center of the image and the shadow of the person taking the photo on the lower right.
Imagine the scene. “I want to take a photo of this!” “No, wait, Mr. President, the Iranians don’t know that we–” “No, it’ll be great! I’ll post it on social media.” “No, no, wait!” *click*
Experts immediately set to work drawing inferences from the image. And if they’re drawing inferences, Iranian intelligence is drawing inferences too:
“The resolution is amazingly high,” says [Ankit] Panda. “I would think it’s probably below well below 20 centimeters, which is much higher than anything I’ve ever seen.”
Panda believes it was most likely taken by a classified U.S. satellite. But Melissa Hanham, deputy director of the Open Nuclear Network at the One Earth Foundation, believes that the resolution is so high, it may be beyond the physical limits at which satellites can operate. “The atmosphere is thick enough that after somewhere around 11 to 9 centimeters, things get wonky,” she says.
That could mean it was taken by a drone or spy plane, though such a vehicle would be violating Iranian airspace. Hanham also says that the European company Airbus has been experimenting with drones that fly so high, they are technically outside the atmosphere and thus operating outside national boundaries. But she says she doesn’t know whether the U.S. has such a system.
As president, Trump is free to declassify anything he likes, no matter how reckless he is in doing so. It’s impossible for him to “leak” for criminal purposes. And of course the Iranians are well aware of the details of their own missile site so he’s not telling them anything they don’t know already about the facility by sharing this. What he is telling them — and everyone else in the world — is that they need to take greater precautions in concealing secrets from American eyes in the sky than they might have thought were necessary until they saw this photo and realized how granular the detail of our images is.
And he might also be inadvertently alerting them that we have aircraft in their airspace that they weren’t aware of until now.
But did Trump really post this without consulting with anyone? Panda is skeptical.
So, question: did ODNI sign off on this? If so, why? Smack-talking Iran on Twitter is literally one of the worst reasons to disclose methods.
— Ankit Panda (@nktpnd) August 30, 2019
Scavino wouldn’t have tweeted something like this without authorization. And if you look in the upper left of the photo, you’ll see that something has been blacked out, suggesting that it was redacted for publication.
But if this is all a deliberate release by the Pentagon or CIA, why was it done in such a slapdash manner, with someone taking a snapshot of the missile-site photo? Trump could have asked for a hard copy of the photo to be uploaded and posted by the relevant natsec authority. Then POTUS could have tweeted it with his comment.
And why was the photo released at all? If you’re invested in the idea that he’s playing eight-dimensional chess here, showing the Iranians that we know more about their program than they thought, surely that point could have been made to them privately, in a manner that wouldn’t also reveal to Russia and China just how good our atmospheric observation is.
What happened here?