Monday, Oct 6, 2008
An appropriations bill signed by President Bush last week allows the controversial National Applications Office to begin operating a stringently limited version of a program that would turn military spy satellites on the US, sharing imagery with other federal, state, and local government agencies. The government’s own watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, has warned in an unpublished report that the more expansive program in the offing lacks adequate safeguards to protect privacy and civil liberties.
For now, the law restricts the NAO to “activities substantially similar” to those carried out by the Civil Applications Committee, an interagency coordinating body formed in 1976 to give civilian agencies access to military satellites for scientific and disaster preparedness purposes, such as “monitoring volcanic activity, environmental and geological changes, hurricanes, and floods.” But as a draft charter for the Office makes clear, officials at the Department of Homeland Security hope to branch out from these traditional applications, providing assistance and information to domestic law enforcement agencies.
That doesn’t sit well with some members of Congess, who in a sharply worded letter earlier this year expressed concerns that the NAO “raises major issues under the Posse Comitatus Act” barring the military from performing law enforcement duties, and worried the program could be used to “gather domestic intelligence outside the rigorous protections of the law—and, ultimately, to share this intelligence with local law enforcement outside of constitutional parameters.”
(Article continues below)
And as the Wall Street Journal reported last week, the Government Accountability Office appears to share those concerns. In an unpublished analysis—a public version of which may be released in coming weeks—the GAO found that there did not seem to be adequate “assurance that NAO operations will comply with applicable laws and privacy and civil liberties standards,” nor sufficient checks and oversight procedures to prevent the misuse of satellite imagery.
The existence of the NAO was first publicly disclosed in press reports last summer, several months after its creation at the behest of the Director of National Intelligence. Following hearings held by the House Committee on Homeland Security, Congress blocked funding for the NAO, pressing DHS for more information about the legal basis for the progam—as well as the privacy safeguard to be put in place. The current appropriations bill permits the NAO to be funded only for the purpose of carrying out the old Civil Applications Committee’s functions, pending a certification by the Secretary of Homeland Security that the Office’s compliance with the law has been vetted, and provision to the Appropriations Committee of details of how funds will be spent. The bill also directs the Inspector General to provide regular reports—somewhat oddly, to the Appropriations Committee—on the data collected by NAO.
This article was posted: Monday, October 6, 2008 at 3:51 am