House Dems balk at funding domestic satellite spying program

With the Homeland Security Department appropriations bill for fiscal 2008 coming up for consideration in conference committee, Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee called for a moratorium on funding the DHS office that will oversee the use of spy satellites for domestic law enforcement.

Democrats yesterday sent a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, urging them not to support funding for the National Applications Office until appropriate safeguards for privacy and civil liberties have been reviewed and approved by congress.

'The NAO marks a dramatic expansion of prior domestic use of satellite imagery that raises very significant constitutional, legal and organizational issues,' the representatives wrote.

Plans for the program to share imagery from U.S. spy satellites for the first time with state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies in the United States were revealed in August, raising immediate concerns about possible abuses of privacy and civil liberties.

The Homeland Security committee held a hearing on the issue earlier this month in which Chairman Bennie Thompson criticized an 'unacceptable' lack of civil rights protections.

'Rigorous privacy and civil liberties protections must be 'baked in' from the beginning, and your department's experts on these topics were shut out,' Thompson told Assistant Secretary Charles Allen, chief intelligence officer at the department's Office of Intelligence and Analysis, where NAO will be housed.

The department's chief privacy officer, Hugo Teufel III, assured the committee that 'the privacy office is engaged with Assistant Secretary Allen and his staff'to ensure NAO will operate transparently and in full compliance with all statutory and policy requirements.'

But in yesterday's letter, committee Democrats said the committee has not yet seen a written legal framework for NAO and the standard operating procedures it would use to ensure privacy and civil liberties are not violated. They urged that NAO not be funded until the documents have been reviewed.

The department has a poor track record in privacy issues. The letter cited four other multimillion-dollar DHS programs that have been cancelled or suspended because of privacy violations: the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening Systems II; the Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight and Semantic Enhancement program; the Secure Flight Program; and the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange Pilot Project.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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