Friday, September 07, 2007

Questions About Domestic Use of Spy Satellites

The administration is moving ahead in its plan to use spy satellites for "Homeland Security." (See also, National Technical Means To Be Used Domestically.)

Saying they had been left in the dark about Bush administration plans to expand domestic access to spy-satellite surveillance technology, lawmakers questioned the legal basis of the program and asked that it be stopped until the Department of Homeland Security provided them with more information. ...

The objections are unlikely to stop the rollout of the program next month, administration officials said. "This program and its capabilities are too important for an all-hazards agency like the department to be pushed aside by politics," said DHS spokesman Russ Knocke. ...

[Lawmakers] questioned whether the plans would hold up to the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable search and seizure by the government. A few Republicans sought specific guarantees the program wouldn't use thermal imaging to snoop on people in their homes.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and two Democratic subcommittee chairmen jointly asked the Department of Homeland Security to provide the legal framework for the domestic use of classified and military spy satellites, and to allow Congress to review privacy and civil liberties protections.

"You let this thing go, it may be another blank check to the executive. It may morph into things that will terrify you if you really understand the capabilities of satellites," said Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), former ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee. ...

Administration officials say the program can help domestic authorities deal with a variety of threats, from illegal immigration and terrorism to hurricanes and forest fires, by providing access to high-resolution, real-time satellite photos. Military sensors can peer through clouds and tree canopies, detect underground bunkers and penetrate buildings.

Charles Allen, Homeland Security's chief intelligence officer, told the committee that overhead satellite imagery has been used legally for decades to support domestic, federal, scientific, law enforcement and security uses. It has been used to create maps, monitor volcanoes and scout sports events.

The new program, he said, does not require additional laws or authority, and would relieve the need for other agencies to rely on ad hoc means of accessing powerful data tools.

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