By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced yesterday that she will kill a controversial Bush administration program to expand the use of spy satellites by domestic law enforcement and other agencies.
Napolitano said she acted after state and local law enforcement officials said that access to secret overhead imagery was not a priority.
Two years ago, President George W. Bush's top intelligence and homeland security officials authorized the National Applications Office (NAO) to expand sharing of satellite data with domestic agencies. But congressional Democrats barred funding for what they said could become a new platform for domestic surveillance that would raise privacy and civil liberties concerns.
Earlier this month, House Democrats expressed surprise that Obama included funding for the program in the classified portion of the Department of Homeland Security's 2010 budget, and they threatened to kill the office.
"The Secretary's decision is an endorsement of this Committee's long-held position," Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement.
The federal government has long permitted domestic use of intelligence imagery for certain scientific uses, such as creating topographic maps or monitoring volcanoes.
Bush officials said the NAO could give domestic security and emergency management agencies new tools to deal with a range of problems, from securing the borders to protecting land and sea ports against terrorism. In addition to tasking military satellites equipped with high-resolution sensors that can see through clouds or penetrate buildings and bunkers, the program would serve as a clearinghouse for state and local agencies seeking greater access to intelligence agencies, they said. Bush officials said the office would not intercept communications.
Charlie Allen, DHS chief intelligence officer from 2005 until January, criticized the decision to kill the program, noting that it was recommended in a 2005 study by a blue-ribbon intelligence panel.
"I have concerns we're not fully utilizing legal and lawfully authorized capabilities of the U.S. government, capabilities for which U.S. taxpayers paid over decades hundreds of billions of dollars," said Allen, now with the Chertoff Group, a consulting firm started by former homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff.
Rep. Peter King (N.Y.), ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said it seemed "the fix was in" by Napolitano to kill the program, adding: "It's a necessary tool of national and homeland security policy, and a way should have been found to make it work."
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), head of the Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence, said the previous administration failed to develop legal controls and other procedures to regulate the use of some of the world's most powerful spy technology, now largely restricted to foreign surveillance.
"As an ill-conceived vestige of the 'dark side' counterterrorism policies of the Bush years, it was past time for the NAO to go," Harman said.