The first thing Melissa Hanham did when she saw President Trump's tweet last week was take a screen grab.
"My reaction was to immediately save the image to my phone just in case it got taken down," she says.
The wording on the tweet was cryptic: "The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir [space launch vehicle] Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran," the president said. "I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One."
But it was the photo that left Hanham, a satellite imagery expert, gobsmacked. The day before, on Aug. 29, a rocket had exploded at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in northern Iran. Trump's tweet contained an incredibly sharp image of the aftermath. Visible were burned-out vehicles and lettering around the edge of the pad that couldn't be seen clearly in commercial satellite photos.
Hanham, deputy director of the Open Nuclear Network in Vienna, says she has seen lots of images over the years but never anything like this. "It was so crystal clear and high-resolution that I did not believe it could have come from a satellite," she says.
There are still few details about how the image made its way to Trump's Twitter account. The president received his daily intelligence briefing at 11:30 a.m. ET, about two hours before the tweet.
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
CNBC reported that Trump was shown the photo during the briefing. A flash visible in the center of the image suggests Trump or someone else took a photo of the original image — which Hanham says might have been the intelligence briefing slide. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence referred questions about the image to the White House.
"We had a photo and I released it, which I have the absolute right to do," Trump told reporters late Friday.
Such a disclosure of classified information by anyone but the president would end in jail time, says Bruce Klingner, a former CIA officer now at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"Anyone else who revealed it would be sitting in Leavenworth prison, serving out a prison term," Klingner says.
But in the world of classified secrets, the president of the United States has absolute power. "The classification system for national security information is not based in a law, it derives from the president's own status as commander in chief of the armed forces," says Steven Aftergood, who studies government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
The rules about classification are laid out in very detailed presidential orders as part of a system run by the executive branch, and Trump is the boss.
"He therefore has the authority to decide unilaterally what will be disclosed, what will be declassified and what will not," Aftergood says.
Past presidents have used this power sparingly. President Bill Clinton authorized the release of some satellite images during the Balkans conflict in the 1990s. In 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell used satellite photos in his speech at the U.N. to build a case for war with Iraq.
But Aftergood thinks the images in those instances were deliberately blurred to hide what U.S. satellites could really do. There's a good reason for that: "These satellites are in the billion-to-multibillion-dollar range; they are worth more than their weight in gold," he says. The photos they produce are so good, they're at the limits of the laws of physics — it's the best picture you can possibly take from space. Aftergood thinks the president's decision to tweet what looks like an unblurred photo of the Iranian accident was a bad idea.
"In chess terms, he has sacrificed a bishop for a pawn or less," he says.
"What the president did is pretty sporty," says Rebeccah Heinrichs with the conservative Hudson Institute. But she also thinks it was done deliberately. The text of the tweet was clearly written by or vetted by someone with an intelligence background, Heinrichs says, noting the use of abbreviations such as SLV for "space launch vehicle." And she thinks the tweet sends a powerful message to Iran.
"He is communicating that we are carefully watching and that we are using restraint, and that if we wanted to do more, we could," she says.
At least some experts agree. "Nations are not suddenly going to say, 'Oh no, we had no idea they could watch us this closely!' " says one senior satellite imaging expert who asked to remain anonymous because of the furor around Trump's tweet. "Yes, there is clearly more detail, but not a whole lot of useful information beyond what the best commercial imagery provides."
But Aftergood thinks Iran will be able to learn from the image. A group of independent satellite spotters says it has already determined which U.S. satellite took the picture. USA 224, one of America's most advanced spy satellites, passed over the launch site shortly after the accident.
Now that the satellite has been pinpointed, Aftergood worries that Iran can evade it. For example, he says, in the runup to an Indian nuclear weapons test in 1998, India tracked U.S. satellites and made sure not to move any major equipment while they were overhead. The U.S. intelligence community was caught off guard by the test when it happened.
And Klingner, the former CIA officer, notes that Iran wasn't the only one that saw the tweet.
"Our adversaries — Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Syria and others — will be looking at this, trying to figure out how good our capabilities are," Klingner says. He worries they just might learn something.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
And now to a photo that President Trump tweeted last week. It came from a U.S. spy satellite. And until the moment it was posted, it was highly classified. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports on why the president's tweet was unprecedented.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The photo is of a launch pad at Iran's Space Center. It shows the remains of a rocket that blew up on the pad last Thursday, and it is so sharp, you can read the lettering on the pad. I called up Bruce Klingner, a former CIA officer now at The Heritage Foundation. The photo may be on Twitter, but he doesn't want to talk about it.
BRUCE KLINGNER: Even though I'm no longer in the intelligence community, I'm still bound by the pledges that I took when I joined the intelligence community.
BRUMFIEL: So just talking about the president's tweet makes you kind of nervous.
KLINGNER: A bit (laughter).
BRUMFIEL: If Klinger had tweeted this, he'd be in a lot of trouble.
KLINGNER: Certainly anyone else who revealed it would be, you know, sitting in Leavenworth prison serving out a prison term.
BRUMFIEL: The president of the United States is actually the only person who can't end up in jail because he has absolute power over classification. Steven Aftergood studies government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: The classification system for national security information is not based in a law. It derives from the president's own status as commander in chief of the armed forces.
BRUMFIEL: The rules are laid out in very detailed presidential orders. The entire system is run by the executive branch, and President Trump is the boss.
AFTERGOOD: He, therefore, has the authority to decide unilaterally what will be disclosed, what will be declassified and what will not.
BRUMFIEL: Past presidents have used this power sparingly. President Clinton authorized the release of some satellite images during the Balkans War in the 1990s. In 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell used satellite photos at his speech in the United Nations, building a case for war with Iraq.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
COLIN POWELL: We also have satellite photos that indicate that banned materials have recently been moved from a number of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction facilities.
BRUMFIEL: But Aftergood thinks those photos were deliberately blurred to hide what the satellites could really do. And he says there's a good reason for that.
AFTERGOOD: These satellites are in the billion to multibillion-dollar range. They are worth more than their weight in gold.
BRUMFIEL: The photos they produce are so good, they're at the very limits of the laws of physics. It's the best picture you can take from space. Aftergood thinks the president's decision to tweet what appears to be an unblurred photo was a mistake.
AFTERGOOD: In chess terms, he has sacrificed a bishop for a pawn or less.
REBECCAH HEINRICHS: It's pretty sporty. What the president did is pretty sporty.
BRUMFIEL: Rebeccah Heinrichs is with the conservative Hudson Institute, and she thinks Trump knew what he was doing. She says, look, everyone knows we have incredible spy satellites already. And this tweet sends a powerful message to Iran.
HEINRICHS: He is communicating that we are carefully watching and that we're using restraint, and if we wanted to do more, we could.
BRUMFIEL: The problem, says former CIA officer Bruce Klingner, is that Iran wasn't the only one who got the tweet.
KLINGNER: Our adversaries - Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Syria and others - will be looking at this trying to determine how good U.S. capabilities are.
BRUMFIEL: And Klingner worries they just might learn something. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.