DHS to kill satellite surveillance program

Napolitano has decided to close the controversial National Applications Office

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced today that she has decided to end a Homeland Security Department-run program to make intelligence and military satellite imagery available to civilian agencies for domestic purposes.

The decision to kill the National Applications Office (NAO) comes after a five-month review conducted in coordination with DHS’ partners in law enforcement, emergency management and intelligence, DHS officials said in a statement. The decision followed from a series of meetings with several major national law enforcement and intelligence organizations.

“This action will allow us to focus our efforts on more effective information sharing programs that better meet the needs of law enforcement, protect the civil liberties and privacy of all Americans, and make our country more secure,” Napolitano said.

The National Applications Office has been controversial from the beginning. Bush administration officials signed a charter to launch the office that would offer access to satellite imagery for homeland security, emergency response and possibly law enforcement purposes.

NAO's charter gave the office no authority to accept requests to acquire or intercept communications, and DHS officials have said NAO would not do so. However, privacy advocates worried the program could be used to spy on Americans, and lawmakers who want more information on the program have fought its advancement.

Senior Democratic lawmakers have also opposed the program. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee’s Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee, introduced a bill on June 4 that would require DHS to immediately close the NAO. She also introduced a measure, co-sponsored by Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.), to bar DHS from spending any money on the NAO or any similar program.

In the law that funded the department for fiscal 2009, Congress prohibited DHS from spending money on the NAO for anything beyond the imagery activities typically done by the Interior Department’s Civil Applications Committee (CAC). The legacy CAC program has historically coordinated the use of the classified satellite information collected by intelligence agencies for domestic purposes such as mapping, disaster relief or environmental research.

The decision to close the NAO will not affect the ability of DHS or its partners to use satellite imaging as currently allowed under existing policy in order to meet its many other responsibilities, DHS’ statement said.

“The Secretary’s decision is an endorsement of this Committee’s long-held position on the NAO,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement. “From the very beginning, our Members were the first to shine a light on this poorly-conceived proposal that lacked the necessary civil liberties protections or law enforcement utility.“

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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