Bills would kill DHS satellite surveillance office

Legislation introduced in the House aims to close the controversial National Applications Office

A senior House Democrat has introduced legislation that would kill the controversial National Applications Office (NAO), a Homeland Security Department-run program to make intelligence and military satellite imagery available to civilian agencies for domestic purposes.

 

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 prohibit DHS from spending any money on the NAO or any similar program.

 

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 how the program will be run have fought the program’s advancement.

 

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.

 

Earlier this year, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she would review the NAO program. However, Harman said in a statement introducing the legislation that DHS had requested funding for the NAO in the classified annex to its fiscal 2010 budget without consulting with or notifying the relevant congressional committees. Harman said the NAO program lacks a clear legal framework, and that law enforcement officials haven’t asked for the additional capabilities the powerful military and intelligence satellites could provide them.

 

“Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if one of these satellites were directed on your neighborhood or home, a school or place of worship – and without an adequate legal framework or operating procedures in place for regulating their use,” Harman said. “I daresay the reaction might be that Big Brother has finally arrived and the black helicopters can’t be far behind. Yet this is precisely what the Department of Homeland Security has done in standing up the benign-sounding National Applications Office, or NAO.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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