The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will reverse a controversial Bush Administration initiative under which the agency took over domestic use of military spy satellites from the Department of the Interior, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The Bush Administration’s transfer of domestic of spy satellite activity to DHS, under a bureau called the National Applications Office (NAO), elicited outcry from civil libertarians who feared the move would lead to unconstitutional surveillance.
Non-military federal agencies have historically used spy satellites during domestic emergencies like the 2002 D.C. sniper manhunt and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Requests for imaging were previously submitted to the Department of Defense by the Interior Department’s Civil Applications Committee. The Pentagon’s National Reconnaissance Office, which operates the agency's spy satellites, would then capture the requested images when its satellites passed over the country.
In 2007 Congress threatened to cut off funding for NAO unless the Bush Administration conducted privacy and civil rights assessments. Last year the White House completed the assessments and staffed the office.
This week Los Angeles Police Department Chief William J. Bratton wrote DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano on behalf of the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA), telling her that “In our view, the NAO is not an issue of urgency."
"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," Bratton wrote. "We believe that at this time, it is these efforts that should be the priority versus the establishment of the NAO."
Bratton, MCCA's president, thanked Napolitano for seeking law enforcement input. “To my knowledge, this is the first opportunity major law enforcement organizations have had to participate in this significant and complex initiative,” he wrote.
To learn more about the legal and constitutional issues posed by domestic use of military spy satellites, see “Homeland Security: Lost in Space?” in the July 2008 issue of Security Management.