Donald Trump tweeted classified photos from Iran while president - report

In 2019, the then-president shared a photo on his Twitter that was classified information, and it has only now become declassified, three years later.

 Donald Trump arrives at Trump Tower the day after FBI agents raided his Mar-a-Lago Palm Beach home, in New York City, US, August 9, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID 'DEE' DELGADO)
Donald Trump arrives at Trump Tower the day after FBI agents raided his Mar-a-Lago Palm Beach home, in New York City, US, August 9, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID 'DEE' DELGADO)

Donald Trump tweeted a classified photo from Iran taken by a secret spy satellite while he was president of the United States, the NPR website reported on Friday evening.

According to the report, the incident happened three years ago, when Trump tweeted a photo that left intelligence experts stunned. The photo was of a rocket exploding on a launch pad deep inside Iran. 

The photo was so sharp that some initially thought it might not have been taken by a satellite. "This image is so refined, and you see so much detail," says Jeffrey Lewis, who studies satellite imagery at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey, California. "At first, I thought it must have been taken by a drone or something."

However, aerospace experts quickly determined that it was photographed using one of America's most valuable intelligence assets: a classified spacecraft called USA 224, widely believed to be the multibillion-dollar KH-11 reconnaissance satellite.

"We had a picture and I released it, which I have the absolute right to do."

Former president Donald Trump

Now, three years after Trump's tweet, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has officially declassified the original image. The declassification, which followed a Freedom of Information Act request by NPR, followed a painstaking review by the Pentagon to determine whether the briefing slide from which it came could be shared with the public.

 The original tweet from then-president Donald Trump containing classified information. (credit: TWITTER SCREENSHOT) The original tweet from then-president Donald Trump containing classified information. (credit: TWITTER SCREENSHOT)

Many details of the original image remain intact - a clear sign that Trump is sharing some of the US government's most valuable intelligence on social media, said Steven Aftergood, a classifieds and secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists.

"He got a real birds-eye-view of some of the most sensitive information in the US on Iran," said Aftergood. "And the first thing he seemed to want to do was tweet it out."

The disclosure comes just days after Trump announced his bid to run for president in 2024. It also follows the FBI's seizure in August of 33 boxes filled with more than 100 classified records stored at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Some of those documents were reportedly related to Iran, according to the Washington Post.

The NGA, which produced the image Trump used in his 2019 tweet, is the government's source for much of its intelligence. The agency collects images from drones, spy planes and satellites, and turns them into information that can then be used by decision-makers.

It's not uncommon for those decision-makers to want to declassify what they see, says Robert Cardillo, who served as the NGA director from 2014-2019. Often, he says, he would suggest the government release a lower-resolution image from a satellite ad instead.

"The entire American intelligence community is incredibly resistant to handing over this information. The idea that the president will just shout 'YOLO!', take a picture of it and tweet it - it's really hard to understand."

Jeffrey Lewis

"It's done from time to time as a way to protect the source, but also to get the information out," says Cardillo. He added that he can't recall ever seeing the authorized publication of an image like the one then-president Trump tweeted.

Trump reportedly first saw the photo as part of a daily intelligence briefing the morning after the Iranian launch failure. In the most complete account of what happened next, published last year by Yahoo! News, President Trump asked to keep a copy of the image, which was from the KH-11 series satellite. An hour later, he sent it to more than 60 million Twitter followers.

Incident proves 'recklessness' of the former president

NPR has not independently verified this report, but what is clear is that the image in the tweet was a photo of a physical sheet of paper, Lewis says. In the center of Trump's tweet is a flash of overhead lights or a flash, and a shadow, possibly from Trump or a utility, taking the picture with a camera. Some of the text the president tweeted also used the exact wording of the then-classified caption for the photo, indicating that his tweet was based on the NGA briefing document obtained by NPR.

After tweeting the photo, Trump said he had done nothing wrong. "We had a picture and I released it, which I have the absolute right to do," he told reporters at the time. The president has ultimate authority over classified material, and Aftergood says he was probably within his legal rights to release the photo.

 A photo illustration shows the suspended Twitter account of then-US President Donald Trump on a smartphone and a lit window in the White House residence in Washington, US, January 8, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/JOSHUA ROBERTS/FILE PHOTO) A photo illustration shows the suspended Twitter account of then-US President Donald Trump on a smartphone and a lit window in the White House residence in Washington, US, January 8, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/JOSHUA ROBERTS/FILE PHOTO)

Cardillo, who now works as a senior executive at the commercial satellite company Planet, says the images are no longer as secret as they once were. The proliferation of commercial imaging satellites means that the public now has regular access to overhead views that are similar, if not quite as good, as US government satellites. During his career, he has seen the classification levels of spy satellite images loosen.

"Because there are so many commercial images out there, I feel like there's less sensitivity," he says. But that photo was still classified, and Lewis says seeing it released must have rattled the intelligence agencies involved. "The entire American intelligence community is incredibly resistant to handing over this information," Lewis says. "The idea that the president will just shout 'YOLO!', take a picture of it and tweet it - it's really hard to understand." 

Cardillo noted that he is sure other countries have used Trump's Twitter image to learn more about what American spy satellites can do. If, for example, Putin were to tweet an image from a Russian satellite, he says the US would assemble a task force to learn everything they could from the image.

In the case of Trump's tweet: "My assumption is that Russia would have done the same thing and Iran would have done the same thing," he says. The latest version "confirms a kind of recklessness on the part of former President Trump and also a lack of respect for the rather incredible intelligence he received."

For Lewis, the incident speaks volumes about Trump's ability to handle classified documents ahead of the 2024 presidential race. "I wouldn't tell this person any information that I want to keep private," Lewis says. "The idea that he could get access to classified information again is troubling."