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Democrats: Delay spy satellite expansion

Congressional panel leaders ask in writing for the Bush administration to hold off on launching a new program until they've had a chance to review its legal underpinnings.

Top Democrats on a congressional Homeland Security Committee have formally asked the Bush administration to place a "moratorium" on new plans to make detailed satellite images available to a wider range of government agencies.

The move, in the form of letter released Thursday evening, arrived after a lengthy hearing about the topic on earlier that day.

In the letter, House of Representatives' Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and subcommittee chairpeople Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Christopher Carney (D-Pa.) said the day's testimony from Department of Homeland Security officials and the planned program's head, Charles Allen, "made clear that there is effectively no legal framework governing the domestic use of satellite imagery for the various purposes envisioned by the department."

At issue is a plan, first revealed in mid-August by The Wall Street Journal, to launch, within the Department of Homeland Security, a new subset called the National Applications Office (NAO) by October 1. The NAO is described as a "clearinghouse" for a broader set of requests--particularly by law enforcement, border security and other domestic homeland security agencies--to tap into powerful satellites that have mostly collected data for scientific or military purposes in the past. The idea grew out of a panel convened by the Director of National Intelligence after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The House Democrats asked the department to submit a number of documents outlining the legal framework that will govern the program and how the government will ensure privacy and civil liberties are protected--particularly when requests come in from state and local police to gain access to the images. Until committee members receive and are able to review the information thoroughly, "we cannot and will not support the expanded use of satellite imagery," the Democrats wrote.

At Thursday's hearing, Allen and others defended the program as an important security tool and adequately privacy-protective, and Allen indicated he would not delay its start date.

Update at 6:35 a.m. PDT: In a telephone interview with CNET, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke avoided commenting directly on whether the department plans to grant the "moratorium" request. "We're going to provide very timely responses to any questions the committee might have, and we believe with that information, the committee will be satisfied," he said.