Satellite surveillance program dogged in approps bills

The House and Senate Appropriations committees greeted the Bush administration’s request for more cyber-security funding warmly in their recently approved appropriations bills for the Homeland Security Department’s 2009 budget. But a controversial program that would create a clearinghouse run by DHS through which civilian agencies could request intelligence and military satellite imagery for domestic purposes once again got a freeze.

The administration has been trying since last year to launch the National Applications Office (NAO) that would offer access to satellite imagery for homeland security, emergency response and possibly law enforcement purposes. However, privacy advocates who worry the program could be used to spy on Americans and lawmakers who want more information on how the program will be run have put up stiff resistance.  

As they did in last year’s omnibus funding measure, lawmakers included restrictions in their appropriations bills that prevent the program from going forward without a review by government auditors — which DHS says is under way.

The Senate budget proposal reiterates the same, while House appropriators said DHS has not submitted enough information on the program. House appropriators would ban NAO’s uses for law enforcement purposes until more information is produced and it is certified as lawful by government auditors.

“The use of U.S. military satellites over the [United States] must be done within a strict legal framework,” said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee’s Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee. “I applaud both the Senate and House appropriators for requiring that action await the GAO’s findings.”

DHS said the program will not be used to monitor communications, and NAO’s charter was signed earlier this year.

Russ Knocke, a DHS spokesman, said the purpose of the program was not to expand existing legal authorities and that the department has met with lawmakers to address their concerns. He added that if another review was required, the department would comply.

“Efforts to further stall the NAO are misguided,” he said.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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