US moves to use spy satellites for domestic surveillance


The United States is moving to expand the use of spy satellites for domestic surveillance, turning its “eyes in sky” inward to counter terrorism and eventually for law enforcement, a US official said Wednesday.

The director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, expanded the range of federal and local agencies that can tap into imagery from spy satellites in a memo in May to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

He also expanded the kind of intelligence that can be made available to include measurement and signature intelligence, which is used to identify and track targets by their particular physical characteristics, the official said.

“There is no new legal ground being broken here,” said the official, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity. The Wall Street Journal was the first to report on the plans Wednesday.

NASA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration and US Geological Survey have had access to imagery from US reconnaissance satellites in the past.

But the new authorities raise questions about its implications for US civil liberties, and the extent to which law enforcement agencies will be able to spy on Americans using tools to spy on foreign adversaries.

The official said the use of satellites by law enforcement would proceed “slowly” to make sure that civil liberties are protected.

Initially, the satellites will be used for “homeland security” missions like border control, monitoring key infrastructure and disaster response, the official said.

The Department of Homeland Security will control access through a committee that will draft “proper use memorandums” stipulating what the intelligence can be used for, the official said.

The committee is not expected to take up law enforcement requests for access until sometime next year.

The plan has been vetted throughout the national government and the appropriate congressional committees have signed off, approving a reallocation of funds for it, the official said.