Plans for the Department of Homeland Security to launch a new satellite surveillance system is coming under new criticism on Capitol Hill. Last week, Secretary Michael Chertoff said the satellite surveillance system would be soon ready to go. But now the Wall Street Journal reports Democrats are threatening to shut down the program unless the department does more to address privacy concerns. The satellite program is designed to provide federal, state and local officials with extensive access to spy satellite imagery to assist with emergency response and other domestic security needs. But critics say the Bush administration hasn’t created legal safeguards to ensure that the program won’t be used for domestic spying. – Democracy Now
Privacy Fears Threaten Satellite Program
Democrats Assail Surveillance System; Issues With Charter
By SIOBHAN GORMAN
WASHINGTON — Homeland Security’s domestic satellite surveillance system is running into fresh opposition from Congress, which is threatening to shut down the program if the department doesn’t more thoroughly address concerns over protecting privacy.
The satellite program, known as the National Applications Office, is designed to provide federal, state and local officials with extensive access to spy satellite imagery to assist with emergency response and other domestic security needs.
Lawmakers said the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t created legal safeguards to ensure that the office won’t be used for domestic spying. They also are asking for assurance that it is legal to use military assets such as spy satellites for domestic security.
Recent classified briefings on the program “did not allay any of our concerns,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat. In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Monday, written with two colleagues, he wrote: “Should you proceed with the [program] without addressing our concerns, we will take appropriate steps to discontinue it.” (Read the letter.)
Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner said her department this week will send lawmakers additional documents — a certification that plans for the office to comply with the law, descriptions of how the office will operate, and assessments of the impact on privacy and civil liberties. “These documents, along with the charter we delivered to Congress last week, should answer many of Congress’ remaining questions,” she said in a written statement.
Ms. Keehner said the office hadn’t been launched, but that DHS “continues to take preparatory steps so that we can stand up to the NAO once the congressional requirements have been met.”
The clash is the latest in a series of conflicts between Democrats on Capitol Hill and the administration over privacy issues stemming from intelligence and national-security programs.
As recently as last week, Mr. Chertoff said the program would soon be ready to go. “We’ve fully addressed anybody’s concerns,” he said. The department has already begun to post job openings; one of the first people they are seeking to hire for the satellite program is a lawyer.
The plan ran into resistance on Capitol Hill shortly after it was announced in August, as lawmakers asked for a legal framework and details of how the program would operate to ensure Americans’ privacy. Homeland officials promised not to begin the program until they answered lawmakers’ concerns.
For months, the department worked on a document it called the new program’s charter. That document got hung up within the administration last winter because agencies, including the Director of National Intelligence, expressed concerns that it did not untangle legal issues such as how to ensure that state and local privacy guidelines were followed. Plans to provide imagery from the satellite program to state and local law-enforcement officials have been put on hold until legal and privacy issues are resolved. (See the charter.)
The charter creates a working group to handle policy and legal issues and lists which privacy-related laws will govern the work of the new spy satellite office. It also clarifies that the satellites won’t be used to intercept communications.
Democratic lawmakers said the charter doesn’t address the requirements they have written into law. Congress said it wouldn’t provide money in 2008 for the program until the department certified that it adhered to privacy laws and the Government Accountability Office reviewed it. Homeland Security hasn’t yet sent GAO a certification for review.
Rep. Thompson, along with Democratic Reps. Jane Harman of California and Christopher P. Carney of Pennsylvania, wrote to Mr. Chertoff to ask he stop further work until he addresses their concerns. “We are disappointed by [the department’s] continuing pattern of putting the cart before the horse,” they wrote.
Rep. Thompson said he wants to see, in writing, how existing laws will be applied to safeguard civil liberties and privacy. The charter describes at what points in the process lawyers will evaluate the legality of a request for data from the office, but it doesn’t explain how they will make their determinations.
Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the top Republican on the subcommittee that doles out the Homeland Security department’s money, called the spy satellite program “an important tool for domestic counterterrorism operations” and said he will work to ensure the department will meet congressional requirements.
Homeland Security’s inspector general concluded in a report released last week that the department needs to revise its assessment of the new office’s impact on privacy and civil liberties before launching the spy-satellite program. The department said it has done that.