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Former President Trump tweeted a classified satellite photo in 2019

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Back in 2019, then-President Donald Trump tweeted a classified image from a U.S. spy satellite. That revelation follows a Freedom of Information Act request by NPR to see the original intelligence documents. Geoff Brumfiel made that FOIA request for NPR. He's here now. Hey, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise - nice to be here.

KELLY: Hey. Glad to have you with us. OK. What does this image look like? And tell me why it has set off so many alarm bells.

BRUMFIEL: OK. So it was late August in 2019, and Iran was set to launch a rocket into space when something went terribly wrong. The rocket blew up on the pad. And the day after it happened, Trump tweeted out an image of a wreckage that was so sharp, experts were actually in disbelief. Jeffrey Lewis is with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and here's how he recalled it.

JEFFREY LEWIS: At first, I thought it must have been taken by a drone or something because it's just so out of character for the U.S. government to reveal these capabilities.

BRUMFIEL: But it was, in fact, a satellite image.

KELLY: Yeah. OK. And we know more about it because you FOIAed it. What did your FOIA request reveal?

BRUMFIEL: Right. So everyone thought this thing was probably classified, but Trump's tweet just had this sort of sketchy photo. Actually, it was a photo of a photo. It looked like someone had used their cellphone to snap an image of an original sheet of paper. So we FOIAed, asking for that original document. And basically, we wanted whatever Trump or his staff had photographed. And earlier this week, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency finally handed it over. Now, parts of this briefing slide are still blacked out because they contain classified information. But there are markings which indicate the entire slide was originally classified before Trump tweeted it. And this is really the first time we've had hard proof that Trump's tweet came from a classified source.

KELLY: Now, everybody knows, of course, that there are spy satellites up there taking pictures of all kinds of things. So just lay out why it would be so concerning that this was classified and Trump tweeted it out.

BRUMFIEL: Sure. Sure. I mean, there are commercial satellites as well, of course, and we'd see a lot of those pictures. But this was probably from one of America's best spy satellites. It's called a KH-11, and it costs billions of dollars. Robert Cardillo, who used to head the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, told me a release like this can potentially help America's adversaries.

ROBERT CARDILLO: Once you tell a threat what you can do, then they obviously have the opportunity to do something about it - to mitigate it, to camouflage it, to disguise it.

BRUMFIEL: And he believes not just the Iranians but other countries like Russia will have studied this image very carefully to learn about America's spy satellites.

KELLY: Was there anything illegal here? Did Trump break the law?

BRUMFIEL: No. In fact, the president has absolute authority over classification, so technically he can't really break the law. And at the time, he said, I have the right to do this, which is true. But there are signs that his actions caused chaos within the government. We got a separate FOIA from the director of National Intelligence which shows members of Congress were worried and confused about whether this image was still classified.

KELLY: OK. And just briefly, Trump is running again, he says, in 2024. What are the experts you're talking to have to say about that?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. I asked Jeffrey Lewis about having Trump in the White House again, and he was pretty direct.

LEWIS: I wouldn't tell this man any information that I wanted to remain private. And so the idea that he could again have access to classified information is unnerving.

BRUMFIEL: And others I spoke to echoed that. They just didn't like Trump's impulsiveness around this material.

KELLY: OK. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.