The Bush administration is planning to give domestic law enforcement agencies increased access to powerful spy satellite technology. The Department of Homeland Security says the satellites will be used to boost border security and help rescuers respond to natural disasters. But some lawmakers and civil liberties groups say that the program may invade the privacy of Americans. Leta Hong Fincher has more.
The United States has for decades used spy satellites to monitor trouble spots in other countries. During the Cold War, these U.S. satellites took pictures of Soviet Union tank movements.
Satellite surveillance technology has advanced dramatically since then. Now, the Department of Homeland Security is about to roll out a new program that will expand the use of space-based imaging satellites for domestic purposes.
Charles Allen, the top intelligence officer for Homeland Security, told a recent congressional hearing that the program will help the nation respond to a range of threats from terrorism and illegal immigration to natural disasters. "Under all conditions, especially in our increasingly uncertain homeland security environment, in which we face a sustained and heightened threat, it is essential that our government use all of its capabilities to assure the safety and well-being of its citizens."
But some lawmakers argue that citizens could have their civil liberties threatened if the Bush administration proceeds with the plan to use secret overhead satellites for law enforcement.
Democratic Party Congresswoman Jane Harman called for a moratorium on the program until Homeland Security officials provide more information about its legal framework. "What I worry about is that even if this program is well-designed and executed carefully by all of you, and I take you as men of good faith, that someone somewhere else in the administration could hijack it and use it for other means."
Harman said the domestic use of satellites might violate a law barring the military from engaging in law enforcement within the United States. Traditionally, the Defense Department has owned and operated spy satellites. Their high-resolution sensors from space are capable of seeing through clouds and even penetrating buildings.
Republican Congressman Paul Broun voiced concern that the program lacks safeguards against abuse. "I believe that every person on this committee wants to make sure that this nation stays safe and secure. But I for one am not willing to give up my liberties and my constitutionally protected, God-given rights to your agency or any other."
At a recent House Homeland Security Committee hearing, civil liberties groups argued against the surveillance program.
Barry Steinhardt is head of the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union. "The government's use of spy satellites to monitor its own people --- let me emphasize, this is to monitor the American people, this is not weather phenomena, this is not our national infrastructure, bridges or the like, this is people who are being monitored here --- represents another large and disturbing step towards what amounts to a surveillance society."
Charles Allen will direct the new program. He says satellite imagery from space has been used for decades for scientific and environmental purposes. He said the technology will be used with "great care" and will not penetrate individual homes. "These systems are not directed at individuals, because these systems are not capable of that from space."
A new National Applications Office in the Homeland Security Department will review requests from civilian agencies to use the spy satellites. The program is scheduled to start October 1st.