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Privacy questions stall 'spy satellite' plans

Homeland Security agrees to delay the new effort's start indefinitely, as congressional Democrats say they still want more details on how it'll operate.

Score one for the skeptics on the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee.

Under fire from politicians citing privacy worries, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is delaying plans--previously slated to kick in Monday--to begin making detailed spy-satellite images available to a wider range of government agencies.

A Wall Street Journal report in August first revealed publicly that the agency planned on October 1 to open what it has dubbed the National Applications Office (NAO), drawing a rash of questions from politicians who complained they had been left out of the discussion. (Homeland Security has maintained, however, that it did brief congressional intelligence and appropriations committee members on the plans.)

The NAO is described as a "clearinghouse" for what the Bush administration anticipates will be a broader set of requests--particularly by law enforcement, border security and other domestic homeland security agencies--to tap into feeds from powerful satellites that have largely collected data for scientific or military purposes in the past.

Now the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee is reporting that Homeland Security won't be opening the office as scheduled after all.

That committee in September , where several members, particularly on the Democratic side, voiced concern that Homeland Security hasn't presented a clear enough legal framework for how the program will operate and how privacy and civil liberties will be protected.

Committee leaders formally asked officials to suspend its rollout until they'd received satisfactory information in writing. Last week, they went a step further, asking a key committee controlling congressional spending to execute the archetypal congressional dis: denying the program funding until their questions were answered.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who heads the Homeland Security committee, said in a statement Monday that he was pleased to hear the agency was delaying the effort's rollout. But he said so far the committee has so far encountered only "silence" in response to its requests for information and urged the agency to deliver the requested response soon.

Homeland Security department representatives didn't immediately respond to interview requests on Monday seeking further details about what happens next.