U.S. President Donald Trump released an official and relatively high resolution annotated U.S. intelligence image of the recent failed space launch at Iran’s Imam Khomeini Space Center via Twitter and confirmed that it involved a Safir space launch vehicle. Trump also declared that the United States had no hand in the accident and offered Iran “best wishes” and “good luck.”
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President Trump revealed a detailed aerial image of an Iranian launchpad, an unusual disclosure that may have confirmed the United States is violating Iran’s airspace to spy on its missile program.
Some imagery experts, examining the angle and very-high resolution of the image, said it may have been taken by an aircraft, possibly a drone.
“It looks like it was taken from an airborne platform, not a satellite,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, an assessment echoed by several other experts.
Trump sent out the Tweet with the message and attached image on Aug. 30, 2019. A black box at the upper left-hand corner appears to be a redaction of a previous classification marking. The social media post also indicates that the U.S. Intelligence Community refers to this particular launch pad as “Semnan Launch Site One.” This method of disclosure is unprecedented.
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
“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV [space launch vehicle] Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran,” Trump wrote in his Tweet. “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.”
The image shows extensive damage to the gantry, transporter-erector-launcher vehicle, and various other supporting vehicles, equipment, on and around the launch pad. The exact source of the imagery is unclear.
What Trump shared on Twitter appears to show a camera flash and a person’s shadow, leading to speculation that Trump or one of his aides may have snapped a picture of the image using a cellphone.
As it frequently does, the president’s public schedule lists an intelligence briefing at 11:30 a.m. Friday. Those sessions are typically done in the Oval Office when the president is in Washington. Trump’s tweet had a time stamp of 1:44 p.m.
The White House declined to address questions about the tweet and the image, including whether it was classified, whether it was produced by an aircraft or drone and whether it had been displayed in a special secure room where handheld electronics are forbidden.
The White House also declined to address why Trump chose to tweet the image and the direct message to Iran, and whether he himself took the photo.
Later, speaking to reporters Friday evening, Trump said, “We had a photo and I released it, which I had the absolute right to do, and we’ll see what happens.”
As president, Trump has the authority to declassify any information he wants. Usually, that decision is based on consultations with U.S. intelligence agencies about the potential damage that disclosure could cause.
The United States rarely discloses intelligence-gathering operations or the details about them, because that can help an adversary understand how the United States is spying.