US agencies train spy satellites on civilians

ERIC SCHMITT

FICTIONAL agent Jack Bauer famously uses America’s spies in the sky in his personal war on terror in TV series 24.

But that’s make-believe. In real life, US civilian agencies have used limited spy-satellite images of their country only to track hurricane damage, monitor climate change and create topographical maps.

But a plan to allow emergency response, border control and, eventually, law enforcement agencies greater access to the sophisticated satellites and other sensors that monitor American territory has drawn sharp criticism from civil liberties advocates, who say the government is overstepping the use of military technology for domestic surveillance.

“It potentially marks a transformation of American political culture toward a surveillance state, in which the entire public domain is subject to official monitoring,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. “There’s the possibility of a recurrence of past abuses: surveillance used against political opponents, as in the Civil Rights and McCarthy eras.

“There’s also an incidental erosion of personal privacy, in which one now has to assume that anywhere you are, you are subject to overhead surveillance by the government. And that is a change in what it means to be an American.”

At issue is a newly disclosed plan that Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, approved in May in a memorandum to homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff, which puts some of the nation’s most powerful intelligence-gathering tools at the disposal of domestic security officials as early as this autumn.

The uses include enhancing seaport and land-border security, improving planning to mitigate natural disasters, and securing major events, such as the Super Bowl or national political conventions. Eventually, state and local law enforcement officials could be allowed to tap into the technology on a case-by-case basis, once legal guidelines are worked out, administration officials say.

Spy satellites, which provide higher resolution photographs than commercial satellite imagery, and in real time, have traditionally been used overseas to monitor terrorist movements, such as at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and nuclear tests in places such as North Korea. Their expanded use in domestic surveillance marks a new era in intelligence gathering, conjuring up images of ‘Big Brother’ and raising civil liberties fears.

“This touches so many Americans. It can’t be allowed to be discussed behind closed doors,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The new data sharing comes after Congress passed legislation this month that broadened the Bush administration’s authority to eavesdrop without warrants on some citizens’ international communications.

Administration officials say that after the September 11 attacks, the government has been looking for ways to use spy satellites and other sensors to strengthen US defences.

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