Homeland Security abandons satellite surveillance program
The Homeland Security Department said June 23 that it will not use satellites for domestic-terrorism surveillance, however the technology can continue to be used to respond to natural disasters.
The National Applications Office (NAO) was created by the department in 2007 to take over mapping responsibilities and was authorized to expand the technology’s use for the prevention and response to a terrorist attack.
The expanded program was authorized by George W. Bush administration officials, however it was never operational.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano reached the decision to shutter the program after a five-month review and discussions with law enforcement officials and members of Congress who said it would trample civil liberty rights.
“This action will allow us to focus our efforts on more effective information sharing programs that better meet the needs of law enforcement, protect the civil liberties and privacy of all Americans, and make our country more secure,” Miss Napolitano said.
According to a June 21 letter to Miss Napolitano from a national police organization obtained by The Washington Times, the office is “not an issue of urgency” to law enforcement.
“Our goal is effective sharing of law enforcement information that protects the privacy and civil liberties of Americans and we are thus committed to a national framework of privacy and civil liberty protections,” said the letter from the Major Cities Chiefs Association signed by Los Angeles police Chief William J. Bratton.
Instead, the association urged Miss Napolitano to focus the department on informationsharing with state and local agencies.
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Miss Napolitano’s decision is a “very big mistake.”
“This is definitely a step back in the war on terror,” Mr. King said. “In the last two years, I have never had one local police official raise objections to it. But we have a letter from Bratton dated Sunday [June 21] now saying they don’t support it? I don’t buy it.”
However, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and committee chairman, welcomed the announcement.
“The secretary’s decision is an endorsement of this committee’s long-held position on the NAO,” Mr. Thompson said.
“From the very beginning, our members were the first to shine a light on this poorly conceived proposal that lacked the necessary civil liberties protections or law enforcement utility,” Mr. Thompson said.
Historically, the technology was used to map natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and floods, to assist agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Charles Allen, chief intelligence officer of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, told the House Homeland Security Committee in a Sept. 6, 2007, hearing, that law enforcement routinely accessed the imagery technology.
“The Department of Homeland Security for example, used overhead imagery in 2005 to examine areas damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to determine areas most in need of assistance,” Mr. Allen said.
The Secret Service uses overhead imagery to identify areas of vulnerability based on topography and to build large maps to support security planning. Federal law enforcement agencies have used imagery to identify potential vulnerabilities of facilities used for high-profile events such as the Super Bowl.
“These are all valid, lawful uses [. . . ] that enhance our ability to protect our nation — whether the threats are manmade or naturally occurring,” Mr. Allen said.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, an independent study appointed by the Director of National Intelligence recommended that the office’s scope be expanded beyond civil uses to include homeland security and law enforcement.
Mr. King said the technology would have been beneficial at Waco to see behind the compound walls and during the Washington, D.C. sniper attacks.
Earlier this month, Rep. Jane Harman, California Democrat, introduced legislation to prevent the department from using satellite imagery for law enforcement purposes by blocking future funding.
“As an ill-conceived vestige of the dark side counterterrorism policies of the Bush years, it was past time for the NAO to go,” Mrs. Harman said.
“I don’t believe the legal and constitutional questions it raised could ever be adequately addressed, and hearing from Secretary Napolitano that it will be closed is music to my ears,” she said.
In April, the Congressional Quarterly reported that Mrs. Harman was overheard on a 2005 National Security Agency wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent she would lobby Justice Department officials to reduce espionage-related charges against two former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
In exchange, the agent said he would back Mrs. Harman in her bid to become chairwoman of the House intelligence committee.