Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions
Spies That Fly

Spy Photos


Spies That Fly homepage

Surveillance images taken by spy planes and satellites have been used to sway public opinion ever since President John F. Kennedy declassified U-2 images of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba four decades ago. Since then, the release of such photographs—sometimes officially sanctioned, sometimes not—has played a crucial role in geopolitics, never more intensely than in recent years. In this interactive satellite map of the world, examine a series of influential images released between 1962 and 2005.—Tim Brown

World map with photo locations labelled

Tail
Enlarge this image

 

1. Poland, 1944
Disturbing as they are, aerial images like this one of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz had no effect on the camp's operations after they were taken, because the photos were collected incidentally as part of bomb-strike imagery of the nearby IG Farben chemical plant. CIA photo interpreters discovered the imagery decades later. Aerial photos like this one were the precursors to far more sophisticated satellite imagery to come.



Hind leg
Enlarge this image

 

2. Cuba, 1962
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy declassified this image and others like it showing construction of medium-range ballistic missile launch sites in the Cuban countryside. Kennedy used the imagery to generate support for a military blockade and military strikes against Cuba. Target audiences included the Soviet leadership and the general public, both domestic and international.



Hind paw
Enlarge this image

 

3. Nicaragua, 1982
This image, taken by an American SR-71 spy plane, shows Soviet merchant ships unloading military equipment at the Nicaraguan port of Corinto. The U.S. State Department Office of Public Diplomacy released this image of the Nicaraguan military buildup to generate support for the "contras" and to highlight the threat posed by the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Nicaragua of fomenting revolution throughout Central America.



Front leg and forepaw
Enlarge this image

 

4. Soviet Union, 1983
The defense magazine Jane's Defense Weekly published highly classified satellite imagery of a Soviet aircraft carrier under construction at the Nikolaev shipyard on the Black Sea. The images, including this one, were taken by an American KH-11 reconnaissance satellite. Leaked by U.S. naval analyst Samuel Morison, the images gave the general public around the world a first glance at the capability of America's classified reconnaissance satellites. The resolution of this image is about one and a half to three feet per pixel; when the satellite is directly overhead, it can resolve objects four to six inches in diameter.



Teeth
Enlarge this image

 

5. Soviet Union, 1986
Imagery taken by the French satellite SPOT marked the first use of commercial satellite imagery by a news organization (ABC News) to independently confirm a major news story. This was significant because the Soviets were denying that the nuclear accident at Chernobyl had taken place. Satellite imagery, it was now clear, could show events and places in countries where the news media was denied access. This is a combined SPOT-Eosat image of Chernobyl; the red dot is a thermal signature revealing the extreme heat of the reactor meltdown.



Nasal cavity
Enlarge this image

 

6. Afghanistan, 1998
The U.S. released images from what it called Operation Infinite Reach, including this image of an Al Qaeda training camp at Zhawar Kili in Afghanistan that was later bombed. This release, which also included the image of a suspected biological warfare production plant at Shifa, Sudan, was the first official release of previously classified satellite imagery by the U.S. government.



Brain
Enlarge this image

 

7. Kosovo, 1999
In April 1999, officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, released this pair of aerial photographs taken high above Izbica in western Kosovo, showing what NATO claimed may be a mass grave containing 150 bodies. NATO officials cited these photographs as evidence that Serb forces were summarily executing civilians.



Brain
Enlarge this image

 

8. United States, 2000
The Public Eye project of the Federation of American Scientists ordered this IKONOS satellite image of the secret U.S. airbase called Area 51—located at Groom Lake, Nevada—to test the limits of the government's "shutter-control" policy. Groom Lake is one of America's most sensitive and closely guarded military flight test centers. After a two-month delay that included the release of a two-meter Russian image, Space Imaging, which is a subsidiary of defense contractor Lockheed Martin, finally released the image. The hangar seen here is configured to allow an aircraft within to taxi or "drive-thru" with its engines running, out of view of prying satellite eyes. The horizontal black line at the bottom center of the image is a blast deflector, which enables the hidden aircraft to run its engines to full power without damaging nearby buildings or vehicles.



Brain
Enlarge this image

 

9. Israel, 2000
The existence of Israel's nuclear program is officially denied by the Israeli government for fear of mandatory U.S. trade and diplomatic sanctions that would be imposed if proof of the program were to become public. Israel has not signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and the U.S. officially turns a blind eye to Israel's weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) program. The release of this IKONOS image of the Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona caused some embarrassment for both Israel and the U.S. The reactor is in the lower left of this image.



Brain
Enlarge this image

 

10. China, 2001
After a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 Aries reconnaissance aircraft in international waters off China, this IKONOS image of the crippled U.S. plane sitting on the parking ramp of an airbase on China's Hainan Island shortly after it landed there became an icon for the crisis between the U.S. and China. (The Chinese pilot ejected from his plane, which then crashed in the ocean, but he was never found.) The image also demonstrated the ability of commercial satellite imagery to quickly tell a story in a denied country. The Chinese government eventually allowed U.S. officials to dismantle and retrieve the plane using a Russian transport aircraft.



Brain
Enlarge this image

 

11. North Korea, 2001
This IKONOS commercial satellite image of North Korea's No Dong missile test pad represented the first use of high-resolution commercial satellite imagery by a non-governmental organization (NGO) to independently examine a facility that concerned the U.S. intelligence community. The Federation of American Scientists ordered and published this image to influence public opinion. This and related images revealed that No Dong is rather unimpressive compared to missile launch sites in other countries; it's smaller, for instance, and has only a dirt road leading to it. Hardliners in the U.S. government who had been agitating about the North Korean missile program withheld releasing the image out of concern that the public might conclude that the North Korean missile program was not as advanced as the intelligence community and legislative supporters of missile defense claimed. In the image, the circle in the center is the missile launch platform, while the diagonal dark rectangle below it is the shadow cast by the missile erector.



Brain
Enlarge this image

 

12. Qatar, 2002
Taken by DigitalGlobe, a commercial satellite company, this image of the U.S.-leased Al Udeid airbase in the tiny Persian Gulf country of Qatar quickly and visibly drew domestic and international attention to the ongoing U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf in preparation for a possible war with Iraq. The image, which the GlobalSecurity.org Web site made public, was the single most requested image in the Web site's history, generating stories by major U.S. and foreign broadcast, print, and other media. The planes to the right are KC-135R Stratotanker refuelers, while the lone plane to the left is a C-17 Globemaster transport.



Brain
Enlarge this image

 

13. Iraq, 2002
GlobalSecurity.org posted this image showing new construction (in enlarged boxes) at the Tuwaitha nuclear research center southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry immediately responded by showing a picture of the image at a press conference and denying that the facility was being used for military purposes. The Iraqis then led Western journalists on a carefully controlled guided tour of portions of the facility to demonstrate that it did not have WMD function. The release of the Tuwaitha image marks the first time that an NGO has successfully used commercial imagery to influence the behavior of a country believed to be illegally pursuing a WMD capability.



Brain
Enlarge this image

 

14. Iran, 2003 & 2005
This hardened underground uranium enrichment facility near the city of Natanz, Iran illustrates both the ability to detect construction of ongoing nuclear facilities and the limits of imagery to divine political intentions. Did the Iranians construct this hardened underground facility knowing that it would be used in a nuclear weapons program? Or was it part of a peaceful, commercial nuclear fuels program and they feared it would be attacked if aboveground? The imagery alone has yet to solidify international resolve.



Brain
Enlarge this image

 

15. Sudan, 2004
Commercial satellite imagery can identify ethnic cleansing and humanitarian crises when "cued" (or supplied precise coordinates on where to point a satellite) by other sources, including humanitarian relief organizations and NGOs on the ground. Unfortunately, while convincing to expert eyes, the images alone may not be persuasive enough to help solve such crises. A glaring case in point is imagery of Darfur released by the U.S. State Department in 2004 (left) and by humanitarian groups in 2007, which has not succeeded in motivating international organizations to apply the necessary political pressure and sanctions on the Sudanese government to end what appears to be genocide. In a case such as that in Darfur, "ground-truth" imagery, when available from on-site sources, is often more dramatic and thus more persuasive in making the case of genocide than blurry images from orbit. In this detail from an image of a destroyed village near Shataya in Darfur taken on June 21, 2004, black rings are foundations of destroyed huts, while red areas indicate remaining healthy vegetation.



Brain
Enlarge this image

 

16. Afghanistan, 2005
Overhead imagery of a CIA Field Station north of Kabul, Afghanistan helped illustrate and draw international attention to a secret CIA program known as "extraordinary rendition." In this program, battlefield combatants were interrogated and later transported to countries where interrogation methods were harsher than those permitted under U.S. law. This CIA station was located only after the general description of the facility's location was "leaked" by a knowledgeable insider in the U.S. intelligence community.



Tim Brown is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit think tank that supports the use of space technology to enhance international peace and security. The author stresses that successful identification of objects and activities in images like the ones appearing in this feature requires the trained eye of an expert (see, for example, Master of the Surveillance Image) and is often clinched with supplementary information, such as that collected by spies on the ground. Note: This feature has been updated from a version called "Spy Photos That Made History" that appeared on this page until December 2007. This new version appears also on NOVA's Astrospies Web site.

Interactives

We recommend you visit the interactive version. The text to the left is provided for printing purposes.


Send feedback Image credits
   
NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site