DHS delays satellite surveillance plans

The Homeland Security Department has delayed plans for a controversial domestic-surveillance program to give the department time to address congressional concerns about possible violations of citizens' privacy and civil liberties.

Beginning Oct. 1, DHS' National Applications Office (NAO) was to have overseen a program that for the first time would share imagery from U.S. spy satellites with state, local and tribal law-enforcement agencies. But the plans immediately raised concerns about possible abuses of privacy and civil liberties when revealed in August; the House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing on the issue in September in which Chairman Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) criticized what he called an 'unacceptable' lack of civil-rights protection.

Despite assurances to the committee from DHS chief privacy officer Hugo Teufel III that the National Applications Office would 'operate transparently and in full compliance with all statutory and policy requirements,' the committee last month called for a moratorium on NAO funding for fiscal 2008 until appropriate privacy and civil-liberties safeguards could be reviewed and approved by Congress.

DHS yesterday informed the committee that the domestic-spying program was being put on hold until these issues were addressed.

Although pleased by the decision, Thompson called it only a 'first step.'

'While we are pleased by the department's decision to go back to the drawing board and get it right, we are troubled by its silence on the second part of our request: that Congress also be provided 'a full opportunity to review the NAO's written legal framework, offer comments, and help shape appropriate procedures and protocols,' ' he said.

The committee wants to review the written plans to ensure the constitutionality of the program before giving its approval, Thompson said.

'Turning this technology on the homeland without a written legal framework for operations is a recipe for disaster,' he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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