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Security, Surveillance and Satellites

Last week as part of the Continuing Resolution that funds the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security through March 2009, Congress provided partial funding for the first phase of a controversial satellite surveillance program run by the National Applications Office

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) National Applications Office (NAO) is the executive agent to facilitate the use of intelligence community technological assets for civil, homeland security and law enforcement purposes within the United States. The office will begin initial operation by fall 2007 and will build on the long-standing work of the Civil Applications Committee, which was created in 1974 to facilitate the use of the capabilities of the intelligence community for civil, non-defense uses in the United States.

Not unexpectedly, groups opposed to any elevation of security are citing concerns over privacy and the separation between military and civilian assets, and invoke the Posse Comitatus Act that has set the limitations on the use of military forces in civilian law enforcement operations since the 19th century. Of course, the concern is that the encroachment of military surveillance assets into civilian law enforcement could be step toward establishing a national military police.

Whether or not the line has already been blurred, the question of the relevance of the Act in the post-September 11th world in which homeland defense and homeland security have nearly become synonymous was raised in a piece written in 2002.

However, the purpose of the current implementation of the NAO program is to provide officials with imagery needed in emergency response and reveal where ports or borders might be vulnerable to terrorism, and not to eavesdrop. That disclaimer does not stop the House Committee on Homeland Security from raising concerns.

Turning America’s spy satellites on the homeland for domestic law enforcement purposes is no trivial matter. Although we support any Department effort to engage in more effective and responsive information sharing with our nation’s first preventers, the serious privacy and civil liberties issues that the NAO raises are manifold and multifaceted.

A GAO report that has not been made public raises concerns that the DHS "lacks assurance that NAO operations will comply with applicable laws and privacy and civil liberties standards." As a result, Chairman Bennie Thompson of the House Committee on Homeland Security has vowed to fight expanson of the NAO program until privacy issues are addressed and resolved.

Additional background on the issues srrounding domestic use of surveillance satellites is shown in this report. The essential conclusion of the CRS Report is that the "proper use of IC products for homeland security and
domestic law enforcement have not yet been resolved."

Indeed, as the War on Terrorism evolves, so will it be necessary for the tools used to fight it to do the same.