Liberties Advocates Fear Abuse of Satellite Images
For years, a handful of civilian agencies have used limited images from the nation’s constellation of spy satellites to track hurricane damage, monitor climate change and create topographical maps.
But a new plan to allow emergency response, border control and, eventually, law enforcement agencies greater access to sophisticated satellites and other sensors that monitor American territory has drawn sharp criticism from civil liberties advocates who say the government is overstepping the use of military technology for domestic surveillance.
“It potentially marks a transformation of American political culture toward a surveillance state in which the entire public domain is subject to official monitoring,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists.
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At issue is a newly disclosed plan that Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, approved in May in a memorandum to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, which puts some of the nation’s most powerful intelligence-gathering tools at the disposal of domestic security officials as early as this fall.
The uses include enhancing seaport and land-border security, improving planning to mitigate natural disasters, and determining how best to secure major events, like the Super Bowl or national political conventions. Eventually, state and local law enforcement officials could be allowed to tap into the technology on a case-by-case basis, once legal guidelines are worked out, administration officials said.
Spy satellites, which provide higher-resolution photographs than commercial satellite imagery, and in real time, have traditionally been used overseas to monitor terrorist movements and nuclear tests. Their expanded use in domestic surveillance marks a new era in intelligence gathering, conjures up images of “Big Brother in the sky,” and raises civil liberties concerns.
“This touches so many Americans, it can’t be allowed to be discussed behind closed doors,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The new data sharing comes as Congress passed legislation this month that broadened the Bush administration’s authority to eavesdrop without warrants on some Americans’ international communications.
Administration officials say that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the government has been looking for ways to use spy satellites and other sensors to strengthen the nation’s defenses against terrorism.
“The view after Sept. 11 was that we ought to move this to homeland security and broaden the domain,” Charles E. Allen, the Department of Homeland Security’s top intelligence officer, said Thursday in a telephone interview. “We obviously believe this is a good expansion.”
The new plan largely follows recommendations included in a 2005 independent study group led by Keith R. Hall, a former head of the National Reconnaissance Office who is a vice president of the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.
“Today, policies and practices governing the use of I.C. capabilities, many of which predate 9/11, discourage rather than encourage use by domestic users especially law enforcement,” the report said. The abbreviation I.C. refers to the intelligence community.
“The ultimate effect is missed opportunities to collect, exploit and disseminate domestic information critical to fighting the war on terrorism, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters natural and man-made,” the report said.
The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the active-duty military forces from conducting law enforcement missions on American soil, and Mr. Allen underscored that the new information-sharing would not violate that ban.
Mr. Allen said that the new program would be especially useful for disaster planning, and for policing land and seaports. He said the effort might eventually share information with domestic law enforcement officials but only after a careful review that would take several months.
“We are not going to be penetrating buildings, bunkers or people’s homes with this,” Mr. Allen said. “I view that as absurd. My view is that no American should be concerned.”
A new office within the Homeland Security Department, called the National Applications Office, will be responsible beginning in October for coordinating requests from civilian agencies for spy satellite information.
The Homeland Security Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence would be responsible for overseeing the program. Reviews would be conducted by agency lawyers, inspectors general and privacy officers.
Civil liberties advocates complained that the agencies could not be trusted to supervise themselves, and that Congress needed to play a larger oversight role.
An official with the House Intelligence Committee said the panel had been notified of the program last spring but had not been given details of the data-sharing, and would ask for a full briefing when lawmakers returned in September from their summer recess.
“Crystal-clear rules on the use of such information are needed to protect the privacy of the American people,” said Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat who heads the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment.
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