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.
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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.
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