WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano killed a program begun by the Bush administration that would use U.S. spy satellites for domestic security and law enforcement.
In an announcement June 23, Napolitano said she made the decision after a five-month review of the program. After consulting local officials, Napolitano said the department should focus on other priorities to help share information with state and local law enforcement agencies.
The program, called the National Applications Office, was announced in 2007 and was to have the Homeland Security Department use overhead and mapping imagery from existing satellites for homeland security and law enforcement purposes.
Privacy and civil liberty concerns delayed the DHS program, which was described as a “poorly-conceived proposal” by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Since 1974, federal agencies have requested satellite imagery through a federal inter-agency group, the Civil Applications Committee. The imagery has been used for scientific research, to assist in response to natural disasters like hurricanes and fires, and to map out vulnerabilities during a major public event like the Super Bowl.
The Homeland Security Department said Napolitano’s decision will not keep federal agencies from getting imagery as they have in the past.
Charlie Allen, the former top intelligence officer at the Department of Homeland Security, said the decision to kill the program is a mistake.
Allen said the idea for moving this program into the Homeland Security Department was recommended by a special commission created in 2005 at the urging of the Director of National Intelligence and the U.S. Geological Society, which chairs the Civil Applications Committee.
Under the homeland security program, the satellites would be used to help with response and recovery missions across the country after hurricanes, floods, fires and other disasters.
Allen said the imaging could help provide a better understanding of the U.S. land and sea borders and the vulnerabilities they have. He said it could also be used to look at weaknesses in the country’s critical infrastructure that could be exploited by terrorists.
“To me, additional support of this nature should be a very welcome thing,” Allen said. “This will help us protect the country from terrorism.”
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called Napolitano’s decision a “rush to judgment.” King, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said others in the intelligence community agree that homeland security should run the program.
The Obama administration asked for money to fund the homeland security program in its 2010 budget request, according to Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat and House homeland security committee member who was briefed on the department’s classified intelligence budget.
Harman and Thompson have been outspoken critics of the program.
The program is a “poorly conceived proposal that lacked the necessary civil liberties protections or law enforcement utility,” Thompson said.