Eye on the Homeland
A plan to use spy satellites for domestic purposes needs to be carefully managed.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

POWERFUL intelligence satellites have been used domestically for years on an ad hoc basis -- for example, to assess damage after a natural disaster, to help with security at major events or for scientific studies. The FBI called in spy satellite help when tracking the Washington area snipers. Now, the Bush administration is forming a unit within the Department of Homeland Security to enable more routine domestic use of satellite imagery -- for purposes such as protecting the borders and helping local law enforcement.

The administration's plan makes sense. But it is essential that these capabilities be used carefully, with due regard for Americans' privacy concerns and with careful monitoring, including congressional oversight.

There is, we agree with civil libertarians, a creepy, Big Brother feel to the notion of an invisible eye snapping pictures from above. But this kind of technology is less invasive than surveillance cameras in public places, which proved their usefulness after terrorist bombings in London. The intrusive capacity of the spy satellites may be greater than that of the satellites that produce images used by Google Earth, but officials insist that they are nowhere near the detect-activity-through-walls powers imagined by producers of television dramas. "We're not looking inside bunkers, we're not looking inside houses," Charles Allen, chief intelligence officer for the Department of Homeland Security, told us. "The capabilities from space have their limitations of physics."

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it makes sense to use satellite technology for domestic defense. A 2005 study, commissioned by intelligence officials, found "an urgent need for action because opportunities to better protect the homeland are being missed."

The greater use of this technology must be accompanied, however, by robust protections for privacy and civil liberties. It must be carefully reviewed within the executive branch and by Congress. Some capabilities may need to remain classified, but a change this significant ought to be publicly debated to the fullest extent possible, and there should be continued public disclosure about how much surveillance is being conducted for what purposes. Administration officials say they fully briefed lawmakers about their plans, but in a sharply worded letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, complained that he had learned of the plan through media reports. That's not a comforting start for a landmark change.

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