Spy satellite deal gets Hill riled up

DHS wants to share data with local agencies

May 2005 ' Office of the Director of National Intelligence and U.S. Geological Survey form study group on satellite use in homeland security.

September 2005 ' Study concludes with call for domestic satellite monitoring program.

May 2007 ' ODNI creates National Applications Office run by DHS.

October 2007 ' Scheduled start of domestic monitoring.

October 2008 ' Target date for strategy to expand NAO program to law enforcement use.

concern: Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and other House Homeland Security Committee members objected to the surreptitious way that DHS has planned the spy satellite project.

AP photo by Haraz N. Ghandbari

Key members of Congress urged the Homeland Security Department to indefinitely postpone the launch of a controversial project to provide military spy satellite pictures and data to domestic homeland security and law enforcement agencies, citing the civil-liberties risks the project entails.

DHS' newly created National Applications Office (NAO) planned to start the program in October. The department framed a procedure for shunting geospatial data from Defense Deparatment satellites to homeland security agencies to monitor counterterrorism and civil-safety matters, officials said.

Privacy oversight

The department planned to broaden the program to provide military satellite data to law enforcement agencies after completing a study of the police forces' requirements. The study is designed to assess the privacy and civil-liberties implications of using military technology to monitor domestic activities.

Testifying in support of the program, Charles Allen, who leads NAO and is chief intelligence officer at DHS's Office of Intelligence and Analysis, said that it gives homeland security and law enforcement agencies an official channel for acquiring military satellite data and offers better safeguards than the informal processes it replaces.

'The NAO, when operational, will facilitate the use of remote sensing capabilities to support a wide variety of customers, many of whom previously have relied on ad hoc processes to access these intelligence capabilities,' Allen said.

The privacy and civil-liberties offices of both DHS and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence will have oversight of NAO, which will also have its own legal adviser on privacy and civil-liberties issues, Allen said.

In addition, the program will be subject to safeguards administered by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the agency that will supply classified satellites images. Requests from NAO for classified satellite imaging data will have to comply with established NGA rules and procedures, and NGA's own staff of policy and legal experts will review NAO requests before they are processed, Allen said.

Congressional leaders released a Sept. 6 letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and NAO calling for the department to delay the program until it provides evidence that the project complies with civil-liberties safeguards established in the Constitution and statutory law.

In the letter, House Homeland Security Committee chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and other panel members criticized the department for surreptitiously starting the project in May 2005 and keeping its program plans secret until now. DHS officials also ignored crucial civil-liberties issues the plan raised and failed to include necessary constitutional safeguards, the legislators said.

'There is effectively no legal framework governing the domestic use of satellite imagery for the various purposes envisioned by the department,' largely because of the department's secretiveness and its failure to seek input from its own internal civil-liberties experts, the lawmakers wrote.

Thompson joined Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House panel's Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee, and Christopher Carney (D-Pa.), chairman of the committee's Management, Investigations, and Oversight Subcommittee, in signing the letter.

'As the department's authorizing committee, we are calling for a moratorium on the program until the many constitutional, legal and organizational questions it raises are answered,' the legislators wrote.

The congressional critics said they want to see DHS' written legal framework for NAO operations and the standard operating procedures for the office. The letter cites specific requests for procedures concerning law enforcement, the safeguards DHS has included to protect citizens' privacy and civil liberties, and a legal analysis of how the program complies with long-standing legal prohibitions on military involvement in domestic operations.

DHS witnesses said at a Sept. 5 hearing that NAO operating plans call for the office to help civil and homeland security officials decide if they need military satellite images.

NAO would then submit specific requests to the NGA. After its own review, NGA would issue orders to military satellites operators to gather the data specified in the requests.

DHS originally planned to start providing the spy satellite pictures to police departments in October. However, the department now has delayed that phase of the project until it completes a year-long study of the civil-liberties issues related to police use of the often highly detailed pictures.

Special applications

In addition to providing images based on the visible-light portion of the spectrum that typically reach a six-inch resolution scale, military satellites can generate various other types of data.

For example, the satellites' Light Detection and Ranging technology, which is especially useful in analyzing smoke particles, water vapor and atmospheric conditions, could play a role in detecting air pollution emitted by illegal methamphetamine labs. Military satellites that can combine imagery from several parts of the electromagnetic spectrum could be particularly useful in pinpointing sites used to grow marijuana.

Other types of military remote-sensing platforms can detect the trampled vegetation that frequently results from groups of illegal migrants crossing the border, according to specialists in the technology. An additional application would be to detect indications ' or phenomenology, in spy satellite parlance ' that signal the presence of cross-border tunnels for smuggling people or drugs.

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