Congress to eye feds' spy satellite scheme

At a hearing next week, a panel plans to ask Homeland Security officials to explain how a move to expand use of powerful surveillance tools will jibe with Americans' privacy rights.

When politicians return to Washington from their August recess next week, one of their first orders of business will be lobbing questions at Bush administration officials over recently disclosed plans to open up powerful spy satellites to the likes of American border-security agents and police.

On September 6, the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee plans to hold a morning hearing entitled "Turning Spy Satellites on the Homeland: the Privacy and Civil Liberties Implications of the National Applications Office," according to a press release issued by the panel. Scheduled to appear for questioning are the Department of Homeland Security's Chief Intelligence Officer Charles Allen, Chief Privacy Officer Hugo Teufel, and Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Officer Dan Sutherland.

The event is apparently a direct response to a Wall Street Journal report about two weeks ago, which revealed that the sprawling federal agency had signed off on expanded use of the so-called "eyes in the sky." By October, Homeland Security is poised to establish a new subset called the National Applications Office, which would oversee expanding access to the surveillance images.

Data about domestic incidents is already fused and sorted 24/7 at Homeland Security 'nerve centers' like this one. U.S. Department of Homeland Security

The military has been using the Cold War-era surveillance gadgets overseas for years in an effort to spot terrorist hideouts, to track contraband movement and to plot routes for U.S. soldiers, the WSJ reported. Domestic agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey have also had access to the high-resolution images for mapping and environmental studies.

But the use of the monitoring technique for domestic law enforcement purposes appears to be on murkier legal grounds. That's why the plan has attracted concern from some congressional Democrats, including Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the chairman of a congressional telecommunications and Internet panel, and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the Homeland Security Committee's chairman (click here for a PDF of Thompson's August 22 letter).

Homeland Security officials, for their part, say they have already briefed the various congressional intelligence committees about their plans and have even secured a budget for their activities, according to the WSJ. That may make it more difficult for politicians the House Homeland Security panel to get answers in an open forum next week, as the Bush Administration officials may claim they're not at liberty to discuss classified details.

It's likely no coincidence that the hearing is set to occur during Congress's first week back in session after a month-long recess. Congressional Democrats are clearly seeking to rebuild some credibility among privacy and civil liberties advocates after caving at the last minute to the president's demands to enact what critics argue are unacceptably sweeping changes--albeit temporary ones--to federal electronic snooping law. (Since then, both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have implicitly threatened to let that law die unless the administration cooperates with Congress's demands for more details on its surveillance programs.)

 

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